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Granted second chance, Delaware opens postseason in dominant fashion

A week after walking off the field at Villanova thinking their season was likely over, the Blue Hens made the most of their postseason resurrection on Saturday.

Delaware seized the opportunity in grand fashion, immediately demonstrating offensive and defensive superiority that visiting Saint Francis would have a very difficult time surmounting.

The Red Flash never could, and Delaware cruised to a 56-17 victory in the first autumn NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision playoff game at Delaware Stadium in a dozen years.

Quarterback Nolan Henderson threw four touchdown passes, giving him 32 on the year to surpass Matt Nagy's single-season UD record 29 from 2000. Henderson completed 16 of 23 passes for 266 yards and also ran 13 yards for the Blue Hens' first TD. Chandler Harvin caught three of those TD passes.

The 56 points tied Delaware's FCS playoff record, coming in a 56-21 first-round win over Samford in 1992.

Delaware's playoff chances had been put in peril after losing 29-26 at Villanova, but the Hens were still deemed worthy and showed why Saturday. Treasuring their postseason opportunity helped spur the Hens.

GAME STATS: Delaware 56, St. Francis 17

"It was huge motivation," said linebacker Johnny Buchanan. "We felt it. I felt it for a second, playing my last college football game. It hits you at your core. I knew there was a little bit of hope so when I heard 'Delaware' pop up on the screen on Sunday, it was on. It doesn't matter how you get in. It's just about winning and advancing.''

No. 23-ranked Delaware (8-4) moves on to play at top-seeded South Dakota State (10-1) at 3 p.m. EST in next Saturday's round of 16.

Delaware receiver Chandler Harvin coasts into the end zone for a touchdown reception in the first quarter of the opening round of the NCAA FCS tournament against Saint Francis at Delaware Stadium, Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022.
Delaware receiver Chandler Harvin coasts into the end zone for a touchdown reception in the first quarter of the opening round of the NCAA FCS tournament against Saint Francis at Delaware Stadium, Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022.

The Missouri Valley Conference champs, who've won 10 straight since a 7-3 season-opening loss to Big Ten member Iowa, had a first-round bye in the 24-team bracket. It's a return trip for Delaware, which was dominated by the Jackrabbits in Brookings 33-3 in the 2021 spring FCS semifinals.

"A week ago we didn't think we were gonna make the playoffs," Henderson said. "Now we get to go to the number one team in the country, and nobody believes in us except the guys in that locker room and that excites me."

Northeast Conference champion Saint Francis (9-3), making its second FCS playoff appearance, had won nine straight including eight by double digits since losing to FBS Akron in overtime and CAA power Richmond to start the season. Delaware had downed the Red Flash 27-10 in the 2021 fall season home opener.

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Delaware tight end Bryce De Maille (81) is greeted by lineman Fintan Brose (54) after picking up a two-point conversion in the first quarter of the opening round of the NCAA FCS tournament against Saint Francis at Delaware Stadium, Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022.
Delaware tight end Bryce De Maille (81) is greeted by lineman Fintan Brose (54) after picking up a two-point conversion in the first quarter of the opening round of the NCAA FCS tournament against Saint Francis at Delaware Stadium, Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022.

The Blue Hens expected a much tougher encounter this time, but they quickly made Saint Francis appear overmatched.

"Getting 11 hats to the ball on defense, fitting the right gaps, making plays when the ball's in the air," coach Ryan Carty said of what led to Delaware's success. "Getting some pressure on the quarterback. I thought he never really felt settled, neither of them really did, 4 [starter Cole Doyle] or 13 [replacement Justin Sliwoski]. I think that's important."

Saint Francis finished with 259 offensive yards. The two quarterbacks were just 13-for-31 passing and were sacked three times.

"And then, offensively, again, execution," Carty said. "It's things that we've done. We've been close. I've hated that word. I've said it too many times. We have to go out here and accomplished the mission and I thought today we did a better job of that."

Delaware's Marcus Yarns (21) blocks a punt attempt by Saint Francis' Jordan Slaiby in the first quarter of the opening round of the NCAA FCS tournament at Delaware Stadium, Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022.
Delaware's Marcus Yarns (21) blocks a punt attempt by Saint Francis' Jordan Slaiby in the first quarter of the opening round of the NCAA FCS tournament at Delaware Stadium, Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022.

The Red Flash arrived ninth nationally in FCS allowing 310 yards per game. Delaware had 331 at the half and finished with 586 total yards.

The Blue Hens benefited from a strong running complement. Kyron Cumby's 111 yards on 10 carries and Marcus Yarns' 85 on nine runs.

"I wasn't surprised," said Saint Francis coach Chris Villarrial, the former NFL offensive lineman. "We knew playing them last year they were a physical team. I think one of the things that really got us early on was the speed of the game. It changed a little bit and it took us a little bit to get caught up and we missed some early balls that could have really changed things, kept the chains going. They kept the offense off the field. We were beat up in that secondary and they exploited it."

Delaware scored on its first two series of the game, traveling 75 yards on six plays, then 84 yards on nine snaps. Henderson's 13-yard scramble and his 30-yard pass to Harvin ended those series as it was 14-0 with 4:20 left in the first period.

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The first half closed with Henderson passing 5 yards to Thyrick Pitts and 7 to Harvin as Delaware zoomed into halftime ahead 28-3. Henderson's 58-yard touchdown pass to Harvin on Delaware's first series of the third quarter quickly extended the lead to 35-3.

"They came out ready to go," Villarrial said.

Saint Francis also came in 16th nationally in FCS with 444.4 yards in total offense per game. The visitors could only manage a 22-yard field goal in the first half, a third-quarter TD after Delaware had taken command and another late TD.

Delaware's defenders Noah Plack (29), Nic Ware (22) and Kedrick Whitehead tackle Saint Francis receiver Makai Jackson in the first quarter of the opening round of the NCAA FCS tournament at Delaware Stadium, Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022.
Delaware's defenders Noah Plack (29), Nic Ware (22) and Kedrick Whitehead tackle Saint Francis receiver Makai Jackson in the first quarter of the opening round of the NCAA FCS tournament at Delaware Stadium, Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022.

It could have been worse.

Delaware had two other first-half series thwarted by fumbles in Saint Francis territory, including one at the goal line, and a third-quarter threat stopped by a A.I. du Pont High graduate Kerry Galloway's interception. That led to Justin Sliwoski's 12-yard TD pass to Dawson Snyder that cut the Hens' lead to 35-10 with 4:04 left in the third period.

But the Blue Hens then tacked on Quincy Watson's 1-yard TD run to close a 10-play, 60-yard drive with 14:09 left to go up 42-10. It became 49-10 with 6:01 left on Khory Spruill's 10-yard TD run set up by Ryan O'Connor's 37-yard pass to Smyrna High grad Mahki Jackson.

Concord High grad Brandon Dennis then recovered a fumble on the kick-off in the end zone for the final UD touchdown that made it 56-10 before Saint Francis added a late TD on a 5-play, 75-yard series.

Have an idea for a compelling local sports story or is there an issue that needs public scrutiny? Contact Kevin Tresolini at ktresolini@delawareonline.com and follow on Twitter @kevintresolini. Support local journalism by subscribing to delawareonline.com.

This article originally appeared on Delaware News Journal: FCS football: University of Delaware opens playoffs with win