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Sad Saturday turns to happy Sunday as Delaware makes NCAA FCS playoffs

For the first time in a dozen years, Delaware Stadium will be the scene of autumn playoff football.

How’s that for a throwback Saturday?

Despite a dreadful loss at Villanova that could have ended its season, Delaware (7-4) will host St. Francis (9-2) on Saturday at 2 p.m. in the first round of the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision Tournament, a postseason reward that's been the mission of every UD season for 50 years now.

"The joy that was in the building in the last hour has been pretty special," first-year Delaware coach Ryan Carty said in mid-afternoon from his Carpenter Center office.

Delaware receiver Jourdan Townsend celebrates his touchdown reception in the third quarter of Delaware's 29-26 loss at Villanova Stadium, Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022.
Delaware receiver Jourdan Townsend celebrates his touchdown reception in the third quarter of Delaware's 29-26 loss at Villanova Stadium, Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022.

A first-round win would send the Blue Hens into a round-of-16 matchup at No. 1-seeded South Dakota State (10-1), where the Hens lost a 2021 spring FCS semifinal.

Delaware downed St. Francis 27-10 last season in the schools' only previous meeting.

The field for the 24-team tournament was announced early Sunday afternoon on ESPNU. Delaware was among five Colonial Athletic Association teams chosen, along with automatic qualifier William & Mary, co-champion New Hampshire, Richmond and Elon.

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Delaware was selected despite losing Saturday’s regular-season finale 29-26 at Villanova, where a second straight blocked punt positioned the Wildcats for the winning touchdown with 1:11 left. That jeopardized Delaware's postseason hopes enough that the team did not gather to watch the selections. But players were at the Carpenter Center for a team meal and 1 p.m. meeting and did watch on their phones, leading to a spontaneous celebration.

"I felt bad that we couldn't go prove to the rest of the country how good we thought we were [at Villanova]," said Carty, who didn't expect the Hens to be chosen. "Now we get a chance to."

Delaware has lost four of its last six and two in a row, falling last Saturday 21-13 to Richmond. The Spiders kicked the go-ahead field goal with four seconds left after Delaware was stopped on downs at the UR 7 with 1:23 left.

Delaware tans react as the Hens get a stop in the fourth quarter of Delaware's 29-26 loss at Villanova Stadium, Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022.
Delaware tans react as the Hens get a stop in the fourth quarter of Delaware's 29-26 loss at Villanova Stadium, Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022.

But Delaware was still considered playoff-worthy, as its other losses were to playoff-bound William & Mary, Elon and Richmond. The Hens also had a very valuable season-opening win at FBS-level Navy. The Mids (4-7) won 17-14 Saturday at 17th-ranked Central Florida, which likely buoyed Delaware’s candidacy.

Losses by other bubble teams Saturday also aided Delaware's chances. FCS tournament committee chairman Jermaine Truax, the Bucknell athletic director, suggested on ESPNU that Montana (7-4) nabbed the last available spot with CAA member Rhode Island, which Delaware downed 42-21, among those nosed out.

"It's a new season," Carty said. " … We were four or five plays from being 10-1, and we weren't, though, and that's football, that's sports. So if things didn't go our way today, there would have been reasons for that, and it would have been on us, and that's us taking responsibility for that.

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"But the fact that the committee saw that we were probably one of the best 24 teams in the country is certainly something that we're happy about, and we are extremely excited about and prideful about. We're ready to show the committee and the country that they made the right decision."

Only the top eight playoff teams are seeded. They have first-round byes. The FCS title game is at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, on Jan. 8.

The other 16 teams are bracketed with consideration given to geographic proximity when possible. The field includes 11 automatic conference champion qualifiers and 13 at-large selections.

Delaware finished in a tie for sixth place with Towson and Villanova in the 13-team CAA.

The NCAA instituted championship playoffs for its lower division schools beginning in 1973, when Delaware was in the brand-new Division II. The Blue Hens moved up to Division I-AA (now FCS) in 1980. From 1973-2010, Delaware reached the NCAA playoffs 20 times, their longest drought being three seasons from 1983 through 1985.

Delaware didn’t return until 2018 when it lost a first-round game at former CAA rival James Madison. Delaware had also lost to Villanova in the regular-season finale that season to finish 7-4, imperiling its playoff chances.

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But in what certainly stirred up nostalgia for the program’s previous successes, Delaware advanced to the NCAA semifinals for the 11th time in the 2021 spring season, which replaced the 2020 fall schedule erased by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Hens were unbeaten until a 33-3 loss at South Dakota State, which a week later lost to Sam Houston, where Carty was offensive coordinator under former Hens coach K.C. Keeler, in the championship.

Delaware did open the 2021 spring playoffs, which involved 16 teams, at Delaware Stadium by beating Sacred Heart 19-10. That’s the only home playoff game since Delaware downed Georgia Southern 27-10 on Dec. 18, 2010, in the semifinals.

Delaware receiver Thyrick Pitts (1) enjoys his 7-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter of Delaware's 29-26 loss at Villanova Stadium, Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022.
Delaware receiver Thyrick Pitts (1) enjoys his 7-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter of Delaware's 29-26 loss at Villanova Stadium, Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022.

Delaware won the FCS championship in 2003, when Carty was backup quarterback, and lost in title games in 1982 to Eastern Kentucky, 2007 to Appalachian State and 2010 to Eastern Washington. Before that, Delaware reached three Division II finals, beating Youngstown State in 1979 after falling to Central Michigan in 1974 and Eastern Illinois in 1978.

Four previous Delaware national football championships in what was then termed the College Division were earned via wire-service polls in 1946, 1963, 1971 and 1972.

"For sure that second season is not taken for granted," said Carty, who was also offensive coordinator on New Hampshire's 2013 and 2014 semifinal teams. "When you get a chance to do it it's pretty special for the program and for the community and for this university."

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: Delaware football FCS playoffs Blue Hens