NEWARK — There were so many times when this Delaware football season could have gotten off track.
First, COVID-19 pushed the fall campaign back to the spring.
Then a couple games were canceled as various CAA programs ended their schedules early.
But here it is May and the Blue Hens are still playing. And if fifth-ranked Delaware (7-0) can win at top-seeded South Dakota State (7-1) today at noon in the NCAA FCS Division I national semifinals, it will be in an official national championship game for just the seventh time in program history.
“There wasn’t like one right way to do it,” UD coach Danny Rocco said about dealing with the pandemic. “We kind of changed with the adjustments. Our players have been so passionately excited about this season.”
Today’s game is a big opportunity for the Hens. The contest will be televised nationally on ESPN, giving Delaware the chance to rejuvenate the program’s status even more.
The Hens haven’t gone this deep in the playoffs since 2010 when they reached the national title game for the third time in eight seasons.
“What we’re trying to do here is build a program that can sustain success,” said Rocco. “Obviously this weekend’s game is an opportunity for us to make a statement on more of a national stage.
“In this tournament, every week that you win, you just become more and more relevant,” he said. “It’s been a while since Delaware’s been able to be in that group. It’s a group you want to be in.”
Of course, the Jackrabbits are pretty motivated, too. They earned the top seed in the playoffs by toppling FCS giant North Dakota State, 27-17, in their regular-season finale.
South Dakota State, which is in the playoffs for the ninth straight season, is trying to reach the FCS national title game for the first time.
Just like last week at Jacksonville State, the odds will be against the Hens today. Delaware’s players, though, say they don’t feel overwhelmed playing in big games.
“I remember Coach (Manny) Rojas saying, ‘There’s no need to be anxious,’” said safety Noah Plack, referring to the Hens’ defensive coordinator. “‘There’s no pressure on us at all.’ We’ve just got to go out there, have fun and play our game.’
“That’s what we’ve been doing. We have the confidence to do it. Our confidence level is really what’s helping us out right now. I just feel like it’s going to be really tough for anyone to come beat us.”
That’s a theme that Rocco has talked about a great deal lately.
He likes that this Delaware team is pretty solid across the board and can make adjustments when it needs to. So far, the formula has worked well this spring.
“We make ourselves hard to beat,” said Rocco. “We haven’t had a lot of penalties and we’ve protected the ball and taken the ball away. We’re kind of a hard out for a good team to take control of.
“We can have balance offensively. We can find a lot of ways to finish a game and we’re solid in special teams. ... We’ve got good depth in a number of positions. That’s allowing us to be in this position.”
UD adds ex-Sanford hoop star
The Delaware men’s basketball program continues to stockpile new talent with word this week that former Sanford School star Zyare Davis is joining the Blue Hens.
The state’s first four-time, first-team All-Stater, the 6-foot-7 Davis is transferring from Providence. He spent one season with the Friars but didn’t play because of a concussion.
Davis netted over 1,700 points in his high school career, averaging 20 points per game as a freshman.
Delaware’s roster is pretty loaded with players at the moment with all four of its seniors planning to use their extra year of eligibility. The Hens are also added transfer Jameer Nelson Jr. (George Washington) and recruit Wes Peterson while former transfers Reggie Gardner (North Carolina Central) and Logan Curtis (East Carolina) didn’t even play last season because of injuries.
With Middletown High star quarterback Braden Davis’ verbal commitment to South Carolina last week, the Gamecocks’ roster has taken on a certain Delaware touch to it. Former Smyrna High linebacker Debo Williams and Wilmington native Mashawan Lloyd are already at South Carolina. ... Williams had four tackles and a pass breakup in the Gamecocks’ spring game. ... The Delaware State baseball team goes into a weekend series at North Carlina Central four games ahead of Coppin State for a spot in the MEAC Tournament. ... The Delaware State women’s triathlon program has signed Chara Hinds, the Barbados female national champion, to its first roster. She joins Danielle Fleurima of Chillicothe, OH as the program’s first signees. ... With K.C. Keeler’s Sam Houston State team playing James Madison in the other FCS semifinal, the former Delaware coach was asked about the possibility of playing the Hens in the title game. “That’s not even part of our world,” he answered. “It’s playing the Dukes. I mean, they’re really good. And that’s who we’re playing.”