Nolan Henderson grew up a Delaware football fan.
So the Smyrna High grad knows that so much of the Blue Hens’ tradition is built on making a run in the NCAA playoffs.
On Sunday afternoon, Henderson wrote a new memorable playoff chapter for both him and Delaware.
The junior quarterback led the Hens on two impressive first-quarter touchdown drives before gutting out two big hits as fifth-ranked Delaware upset fourth-seeded Jacksonville State, 20-14, in the NCAA FCS Division I playoffs at Burgess-Snow Field.
Delaware’s defense also dominated the Gamecocks (10-3) after they lost standout quarterback Zion Webb to a first-quarter knee injury. Jacksonville State managed just eight first downs — four of which came on their final drive — and 200 yards.
Now the Hens (7-0) are headed to the FCS national semifinals for the first time since 2010. They’ll face the winner of Sunday’s late game between No. 1 South Dakota State and Southern Illinois next weekend at a time and site TBA.
“It’s why we came here,” said Henderson. “We’re in Alabama playing a quarterfinal game. It’s special. This program has come a long way in the past couple years.
“From the beginning, with COVID and this weird season, we looked at it as any other season. We’re in it to win it. We want to win the whole thing. We put ourselves in position. Now we’re in the final four teams. We love this opportunity that we keep earning.”
Henderson was at his best on Delaware’s first two drives. He led the Hens on scoring drives of 75 and 89 yards to start the game, completing eight of his first 10 passes for 149 yards.
Backup QB Anthony Paoletti (2 yards) and Dejoun Lee (1 yard) finished both marches with short touchdown runs.
But Henderson also earned a great deal of respect after playing the second half despite suffering an injury to his left shoulder. He was in obvious pain after a Jacksonville State defender landed on top of Henderson following a pass attempt.
Henderson called it a bruise.
Henderson then took a nasty blow to the head by the Gamecocks’ linebacker Markail Benton just as he was stepping out of bounds on a third-quarter run. Benton was ejected for targeting.
“I thought the quarterback was a good player coming in,” said JSU coach John Grass. “I thought he was lights out today. I thought he played a great game. You’ve got to take your hat off to him.
“He made really good decisions. He was very accurate with the football.”
“You feel like you get pressure on him and he squirts out of the pocket,” said JSU linebacker Marshall Clark. “The receivers did a really good job with the scramble drill, getting open. He’s a tough kid, he’s a good player. ... He made plays that really changed the game.”
“Nolan was extraordinary there in the first quarter,” said UD coach Danny Rocco. “(Bryce) DeMaille, (Thyrick) Pitts, (Gene) Coleman. ... they were all making plays. I mean we were moving the ball down the field. It was just really exciting to watch.”
Henderson ended up 18-of-28 for 239 yards with one interception with a team-high 30 rushing yards on eight caries. Coleman also came up big, finishing with a career-high 10 catches for 129 yards.
But while the Hens put up some big passing numbers, the Gamecocks smothered Delaware’s running game. The Hens finished with just 108 yards on the ground.
Jacksonville State also kept the Hens out of the end zone after the first quarter. Delaware had to settle for two second-half field goals, of 23 and 47 yards from Ryan Coe.
They ended up being the difference in the game.
The Gamecocks’ offense, without its starting QB, seemed at a loss for answers. JSU was 1-of-12 on third downs — and that one conversion came in the final two minutes of the contest.
Still, the Gamecocks were able to stay in the game thanks to one big play from third-string QB A.C. Graham.
On the first play of the second half, the redshirt freshman cut upfield, found no Delaware defenders and sprinted 74 yards. JSU scored on the next play from the one to cut the Hens’ lead to only 14-7.
Delaware, though, answered with a field goal to get back its two-score lead.
Really, the only other time the Gamecocks threatened was when they went 73 yards on 12 plays for a TD that cut Delaware’s lead to just 20-14 with only 41 seconds remaining.
But the Hens’ Joe Zubillaga recovered the ensuing onsides kick and Delaware ran out the clock.
Linebacker Colby Reeder, who posted a team-high seven tackles, admits the Hens’ defense was a little disappointed in itself for giving up that long run to Graham.
“Being a perfectionist on defense, you’re never happy with a big play line that,” said Reeder. “But when you play a really good team — the No. 4 team in the country — they’ve got really good players, too.
“I think it really comes down to how we respond to something like that. We came right back out there and got right back to business the next series.”
Like Henderson, Reeder has been around the program since he was a kid. He realizes this is turning into a pretty special team. “I’ve been on a playoff team before here but this feels different,” he said. “It feels special. I’ve been on a lot of teams where nerves might get to them, where the games might be too big.
“But this team was just out there having fun today. We’re the tightest team I’ve ever been a part of. We’re just having fun, getting after it and making plays. It’s a really special group.”
Delaware finished with an advantage of 38:25-21:35 in time of possession. ... Safety Noah Plack and cornerback Nijuel Hill both had interceptions for the Hens. Delaware also had five sacks in the game from five different players. ... Jacksonville’s three QBs completed only 9-of-21 passes for 93 yards.