NEWARK — Nolan Henderson is still something of an underdog.
He was never the biggest kid or the most-highly recruited quarterback coming out of Smyrna High.
And even though he more than proven himself as Delaware’s starting QB since then, that underdog mentality is still something Henderson carries with him.
He said he tries to walk the line between keeping a chip on his shoulder and having confidence in himself.
“One thing Coach Rocco always says is, ‘Have the confidence of a champion and the grit and attitude and edge of an underdog,’” said Henderson.
Henderson and his Blue Hen teammates will probably need all those attributes when they head to Piscataway, New Jersey, on Saturday to face Big 10 member Rutgers (2-0) at 3:30 p.m.
It’s the 32nd time the two regional programs have met but the first time since 1973. The Scarlet Knights lead the all-time series, 15-13-3, although the first 15 meetings were played before 1938.
Most people will expect Delaware (2-0) — ranked No. 6 in FCS — to get crushed, much like Rutgers did to Temple in a 61-14 rout two weeks ago.
The Hens, on the other hand, are hoping for more of a nail-biter like the 17-14 loss they suffered at Pittsburgh in 2019.
The fact that there have been a number of notable FCS wins over FBS schools already this season doesn’t hurt Delaware’s confidence. Montana stunned No. 20 Washington two weeks ago before Jacksonville State pulled off an even more shocking 19-13 upset of Florida State on a 59-yard Hail Mary on the final play of the contest on Saturday night.
Delaware beat Jacksonville State in the spring NCAA FCS playoffs.
“I don’t think we lack confidence,” said Henderson. “But, for sure, to see FCS teams go into FBS stadiums and win games just proves that, on any day, anyone can be beat. It definitely just gives us confidence knowing that that’s a common opponent going into Tallahassee and winning a tough game.”
Henderson is one of several current Hens who put in a steady performance against Pitt in the 2019 contest. He completed 14-of-31 passes for 127 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.
In the two years since, Henderson has played in 17 more games. Since the spring, he has thrown 243 passes with 13 touchdowns and only four interceptions.
Rocco likes the way Henderson responds to big-game situations.
“It makes all the difference in the world,” Rocco said about having a veteran QB like Henderson. “Although I think Nolan has (things) beyond talent. He’s got character and he’s got intelligence, toughness and leadership.
“Those are the kinds of things that make you feel really, really good about Nolan and his role on our football team. He’s been in some really, really big moments and no moment has ever really been too big.”
Like all the underdogs before them, the Hens will go into Saturday’s matchup believing this is their big chance to show the football world what they’re made of.
The pressure to actually win the game is on the Scarlet Knights.
“There can be a lot of outside motivation,” said Henderson. “We have a lot of New Jersey kids on the team. We have a lot of kids that felt they deserved FBS offers.
“But, at the end of the day, it’s just one focus, like any other week is, to come out of Piscataway with a win.”
Out of the blue
Late in the third quarter of Saturday’s game with St. Francis, Delaware was stuck in a fourth-and-22 hole at its own 13 yard line.
Seemingly out of nowhere, though, there was a penalty flag downfield — far away from the running play the Hens had just run.
“I had no idea what was going on — I had no earthly idea,” said Rocco. “I don’t know what all happened over there. I was kind of dumbfounded because all I knew was that a flag went up.
“I was kind of asking our coaches up in the box, ‘What in the world happened?’ We start saying, it’s got to be on them. They had their whole team over there. We had one guy over there.”
It turns out a Red Flash defender had driven Delaware receiver Thyrick Pitts pretty far into the St. Francis bench area at Delaware Stadium. The player was called for a personal foul, giving the Hens an automatic first down and new life.
They converted the opportunity into an insurance touchdown in the 27-10 victory.
Rocco said that was another example of how costly a penalty can be. The Hens have been called for a total of just five penalties in their first five games.
“It’s an easy thing to preach, it’s a hard thing to really do in the heat of the battle,” said Rocco.
Picking their spots
Twice on a TD drive just before halftime on Saturday, the Hens were able to convert on fourth-down opportunities to keep the march going.
On the first, Henderson was able to draw a St. Francis lineman offsides. On the second, Henderson picked up two yards on a fourth-and-one.
“We are living in this world of analytics,” said Rocco. “And if you kind of follow the analytics manual, it tells you to go for it every time on fourth down.
“I’m not going to do that but there are a couple field-position areas and third-down distances that we were thinking, if we can get into the fourth and short, we were going to go for it. It did create an opportunity.”
Delaware’s running QB, Anthony Paoletti, how has scored four touchdowns since the spring season. ... Defensive lineman Tommy Walsh caused a fumble that Frank Burton recovered late in the St. Francis game. ... Rocco didn’t have any new information on the Hens’ previously injured players but said there’s a chance some could be back this week. Among starters, that group includes safety Noah Plack, center Mickey Henry, offensive guard Stevon Brown and linebacker Drew Nickles. ... Kicker Ryan Coe is 4-for-4 on field-goal attempts with all the kicks under 39 yards.