NEWARK – For maybe half an hour, the Blue Hens were all playing the games of their lives.
And they knew it.
Not only did they have sixth-ranked Villanova on the ropes, but they’d come all the way back from a 20-point deficit to actually lead the heavily-favored Wildcats.
“It was an awfully exciting time there for about 20 minutes,” said Delaware coach Dave Brock. “The place was just rocking and people were into it. Third down sounded like third down and big plays sounded like big plays and defensive stops sounded like defensive stops.
“It was exciting. And it was the first time it’s really happened in two years.”
But it didn’t last. For the Hens it all really was too good to be true.
Like Villanova always seems to lately, the Wildcats roared back, driving 68 yards for the winning touchdown with just 23 seconds left to hand Delaware a heartbreaking, season-ending, 35-28 Colonial Athletic Association football loss at Delaware Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
The loss, the Hens’ eighth to the Wildcats (7-1 CAA, 10-2 overall) in the last nine years, left Delaware (4-4 CAA, 6-6) with a .500 season. But it was difficult for the Hens not to be proud of the way they battled back after falling behind 20-0 in the first 16 minutes of the contest.
“It was great to see everybody fight the way they did,” said senior defensive end Derrick Saulsberry, who had a team-high eight tackles. “The first half obviously didn’t go the way we wanted it. But I’m proud of the guys for the way they came out in the second half and just battled with one of the best teams in the country and went blow-for-blow with them.
“I’m proud of how every single man battled on that field. Other than the win, I wouldn’t want anything else.”
Delaware took its only lead of the day when it marched 52 yards on six plays, with Jalen Randolph scoring his third touchdown of the day with just 2:04 remaining. Garrett Greenway’s PAT kick gave the Hens a 28-27 advantage after Delaware blocked a kick earlier in the game.
But that was more than enough time for the Wildcats and their star quarterback, John Robertson.
Villanova needed 10 plays to go 68 yards. Kevin Gulyas scored the winning TD when he caught a pass at the 10, turned up the sidelines and raced into the end zone to complete a 21-yard scoring pass from Robertson. The Wildcats then added a two-point conversion to give them their 35-28 lead.
The back-breaking play for the Hens, though, came earlier in the final drive.
With Villanova facing a fourth-and-15 from its own 27, Robertson found receiver Poppy Livers on a 23-yard crossing pattern to keep the drive alive.
“Without question, he (Robertson) has to be the leading candidate for the Walter Payton award,” said Wildcat coach Andy Talley, referring to the award that goes to the top player in NCAA Division I FCS. “That’s what a Walter Payton guy does. When it’s fourth-and-15, he gets you ball in the right place and then he gets you in the end zone under duress.”
“He found a way, certainly in some clutch situations,” Delaware coach Dave Brock said about Robertson. “He’s a terrific player.”
Robertson ended up completing 14-of-25 passes for 217 yards with three TDs and an interception while running 23 times for 117 yards as the junior improved to 3-0 against Delaware. Of course, it was just a year ago that he led the Wildcats back from a 22-point fourth-quarter deficit against the Hens.
In the second half, though, the Hens were able to find ways to keep Villanova out of the end zone. In an unusual stat, the Wildcats went 0-for-9 on third-down conversions but 3-for-4 on fourth down.
Delaware had only been able to manage a 10-yard scoring pass from Trent Hurley to tight end Nick Boyle in the first half. But, with their backs to the wall, the Hens strung together three second-half scoring drives after falling behind 27-7.
Randolph (14 carries-59 yards) scored all three TDs. Probably the most memorable of the bunch came on a fourth-and-two when Hurley rolled out and found the sophomore running back wide open in the flat for a six-yard scoring pass with 9:56 remaining.
In his final game, Hurley completed 15-of-21 passes for 212 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. Another senior, standout receiver Michael Johnson, had six catches for 117 yards in his finale.
But the Hens also did a good job running the ball in the second half with Wes Hills picking up 99 yards on 19 carries.
Villanova outgained Delaware 447 yards to 371.
Brock, whose team was called for nine penalties totaling 75 yards, is the first to admit the Hens made too many mistakes on Saturday. But he’ll take that kind of effort any day.
“I thought we battled like crazy,” said Brock, who is now 13-11 in two seasons at Delaware. “I was proud of how the kids played and fought. I don’t think we played particularly well at times in the game but they battled like crazy.
“They had a really, really strong belief and a commitment in each other. I think it jumped off the field out there.
“We’ve got to find a way to stop coming up short - especially in this game, two years in a row,” he added. “It’s bitterly disappointing.”
After the game was over and the handshakes were done, a small group of Delaware seniors knelt down in the middle of the field and bowed their heads. The group included safety Jake Giusti, Hurley, safety C.J. Jones and defensive back Kivar Thurman.
If things had gone a little differently in the last few minutes, itt could have been a memorable celebration for the entire squad. Instead, the handful of seniors took it for what it was.
“We were just telling each other how much we’ve enjoyed it here together,” said Giusti. “How much of a fun ride it’s been. We told each other that we loved each other and Thurman led us in a prayer.
“It was just kind of living the last few seconds on that field before we had to walk off.”
Kevin Monangai scored three touchdowns for Villanova while running for 71 yards on 17 carries. …. Johnson ended up catching a pass in his last 35 games. …. Laith Wallschleger’s blocked PAT kick was the school-record eighth of his career. … Receiver Diante Cherry ran down Villanova linebacker Dillon Lucas from behind after a 72-yard interception return just before halftime. Lucas was tackled at the two. The Hens’ defense then stopped the Wildcats with Blaine Woodson blocking a 32-yard field goal attempt on the last play of the half. … Boyle’s TD catch came on the 100threception of his career.
Sports editor Andy Walter can be reached at 741-8227 firstname.lastname@example.org.