NEWARK — Delaware’s players had been in this kind of position just a few months ago.
Another underdog NEC team, Sacred Heart, came into Delaware Stadium in April and made the Blue Hens work for a low-scoring win in an NCAA FCS playoff victory.
Coach Danny Rocco reminded his players of that fact when they were battling St. Francis in a low-scoring game on Saturday night.
“I did say at halftime, this game is going to go one of two ways,” said Rocco. “We were either going to find ourselves pulling away or they’re going to make this thing really, really sticky to the bitter end.
“It kind of ended up somewhere in the middle.”
That probably describes sixth-ranked Delaware’s 27-10 victory over St. Francis on Saturday evening as well as anything.
The Blue Hens (2-0) were certainly better than the Red Flash (0-2) in the first meeting between the two programs played before a crowd of 13,351 at Delaware Stadium. But they weren’t that much better that they didn’t have to work pretty hard for their second win of the season.
The Red Flash were still hanging around when Nolan Henderson fired a 30-yard scoring strike to Thyrick Pitts in the back of the end zone for a big TD that stretched Delaware’s lead to 27-10 with 12:22 remaining in the game.
The drive had originally stalled when the Hens appeared to be stopped on a fourth-and-22. But St. Francis was called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty away from the play to keep the drive going.
Running back Dejoun Lee said the Hens just stayed patient. They led only 6-3 late in the first half.
“Eventually one (play) will hit — and will hit big,” said Lee. “But you can’t go looking for it because you won’t get the small ones.
“These guys, their entire conference plays really, really hard. We knew they were going to come play hard. Coach Rocco gave us a heads up on what their mentality would be. I knew they would be very similar to Sacred Heart in regards to being tough guys. But we were a little more prepared this time.”
Delaware didn’t get its first touchdown until Lee scored on a one-yard run with just 15 seconds left in the first half. The Hens twice kept the 14-play, 58-yard scoring drive alive with fourth-down conversions.
After twice settling for Ryan Coe field goals, the TD gave Delaware a 13-3 halftime advantage.
“I think that was one of the bigger defining moments in the game,” said Rocco.
Leading 13-3 in the third quarter, Delaware got a break when a Red Flash punt put the Hens at the St. Francis 35. Henderson found Lee wide open for a 34-yard pass before QB Anthony Paotelli scored on a yard-run to give Delaware its biggest lead at 20-3.
But St. Francis answered quickly when quarterback Jyron Russell sprinted 66 yards on a wide-open bootleg to cut the Hens’ lead back to 20-10 with 2:05 left in the third quarter.
Henderson looked sharp, completing 18-of-23 passes for 259 yard with no interceptions. Nine different Delaware players caught passes.
Lee ran for 58 yards on 14 carries while adding 40 yards on a pair of catches.
Delaware finished with only a 366-300 edge in total yards but forced a pair of turnovers without turning the ball over itself.
The Hens also had only four penalties for 25 yards while the Red Flash were called for seven penalties totaling 60 yards.
“I pretty much expected to get a good game from them,” said Rocco. “We’re capable of playing better. We’re going to have to play better here moving forward. ... But I think holistically we did some good things. We made ourselves hard to beat.
“We’re excited about moving forward to next week with a challenge against a Big 10 team.”
Rocco was referring to the Hens’ game at Rutgers next Saturday afternoon. It will be the first time the two programs have met since 1973.
“Right when we got in the locker room, Coach mentioned the week we have coming up,” said Lee. “It’s definitely exciting. It’s an opportunity to make a statement, which is something we’ve been talking about.
“This is a team filled with perfectionists. That’s special because everybody wants to be perfect and we knew we weren’t perfect today.”
Delaware cornerback Nijuel Hill was called for targeting on a big third-quarter hit. But the call was wiped out on replay. “Coach Rocco tells us a lot to keep your heads and eyes up so I’m not leading with my head,” said Hill. “I was pretty sure I hit him with my shoulder.” ... Linebacker Liam Trainer had an interception after defensive lineman Artis Hemingway hit Russell on the throw. ... Frank Burton recovered a fumble on St. Francis’ last drive. ... Safety Andrew Pawlowski posted a team-high six tackles. ... Tight end Bryce DeMaille made his season debut had two catches for 22 yards. ... Tight end Braden Brose had a 39-yard reception. ... Rutgers is 2-0 after beating Syracuse, 17-7, on Saturday.