By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Bring up Delaware football and, not surprisingly, people often focus on Pat Devlin, who has carved his place in the long line of outstanding Blue Hens quarterbacks.
Talk to opposing coaches and attention goes right to the Blue Hens' defense.
The Blue Hens enter the FCS Championship Game against Eastern Washington with a squad that has led the nation in scoring defense the entire season. They opened the season with a shutout, didn't allow a touchdown until their fourth game and have an 11.5-point average that is a full three points better than the second-ranked team. They are fifth in total defense at 277.4 yards per game.
CAA Football coaches who know Delaware so well probably believe EWU (12-2) will need all three weeks of its preparation to find something to exploit against the Blue Hens (12-2) on Jan. 7 at Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, Texas.
"I think Delaware's strength is their defense," James Madison coach Mickey Matthews said. "I think the strength of their football team is their defensive backfield. I just think all of them are good. They're probably not pro prospects if you're talking to NFL scouts, but they are excellent, excellent college seniors. They cover the pass, they're tacklers, they're just really good players. I think their front seven is solid.
"They line up correctly, they play hard, it's hard to make a big play on them. They're just really good on defense."
The all-senior starting secondary of cornerbacks Anthony Walters and Tyrone Grant, free safety Darryl Jones and strong safety Anthony Bratton has combined for 316 tackles and 16 of the Blue Hens' 20 interceptions. Walters, a third- team All-America, has seven interceptions, and Grant another five. Sophomore cornerback Marcus Burley has provided excellent play off the bench.
It's not a blitz-happy defense, with only 17 sacks, but middle linebacker Matt Marcorelle and outside linebacker Paul Worrilow (team-high 104 tackles) are particularly active. Outside linebacker Andrew Harrison is the other starter.
"Defensively, they did a did a great job of matching our packages," said New Hampshire coach Sean McDonnell, whose Wildcats were stopped by Delaware, 16-3, in a national quarterfinal. "I was very impressed with their second-level speed, especially at the linebackers and the safety positions. They closed in a hurry on our receivers and our running backs in open spaces, and they tackle very, very well. And their defensive front was physical and handled us up pretty well."
"Defensively, people can't move the ball on them," said Rhode Island coach Joe Trainer. "Their front is enormous and incredibly physical. Their linebackers are physical. They have, I think, the best secondary in the conference."
Most people will say the Blue Hens definitely have the best quarterback, too. Devlin, the CAA Offensive Player of the Year, has taken his game to a higher level as he heads toward being a middle-round selection in the 2011 NFL Draft. He has thrown for 15 touchdowns in the last five games, and overall has completed 239-of-350 pass attempts for 2,812 yards, 22 touchdowns and only two interceptions. His pass efficiency rating of 155.37 is third-best in the FCS.
He knows how to manage a game well. The Blue Hens have trailed less than 11 percent of the season and won all 11 games when scoring first. They are plus-17 in turnover margin.
"I think the quarterback's good. He makes good decisions," Matthews said.
"I think Devlin is the best thrower in the league," McDonnell said. "You sit there and watch him on tape and watch how he goes through his reads ... as coach Keeler calls full-field reads. He struggled early against us in the game and wasn't on, but from the middle of the second quarter on to the end of the game, he put the ball on people, went through the reads, and we gave him some different looks and he found where people were open and got them the ball. Throwing the football in this league, he's the best, best thrower in this league that we faced all year."
The maturity of players surrounding Devlin has helped make the offense particularly dangerous. The offensive line was set back by injuries and allowed too many sacks last season. But three starters earned all-conference honors this season: 6-4, 294-pound left guard Gino Gradkowski (first team); center Rob McDowell (second team); and 6-5, 297-pound left tackle Shea Allard (third team), who teams with senior Kevin Uhll. In the championship game, Uhll and Zach Reed, the backup tight end and the team's long snapper, will both set school records by playing in their 53rd career game.
The depth in the skills positions is outstanding. Running back Andrew Pierce (1,513 yards, 13 touchdowns; 28 receptions, three touchdowns), the CAA Offensive Rookie of the Year, is a between-the-tackles runner who went for 186 yards in a national semifinal against Georgia Southern. David Hayes, blessed with breakaway speed, has provided a nice lift recently.
Devlin spreads the ball to his receiving corps. Nihja White (55 receptions, six touchdowns), Phillip Thaxton (45 receptions, five touchdowns) and Tommy Crosby (38 receptions) were his favorite targets in the regular season, but junior Mark Schenauer has caught a touchdown in each of the Blue Hens' playoff wins.
"The biggest reason they're better offensively from a year ago is their offensive line," Matthews said.
"I think the running back has really been a great find for them. He does a nice job, he's a good solid player. I don't think their receivers are great players. I know they've had a lot of drops this year at receiver. I think the quarterback's really good, the running back, the offensive line."
"You look at Delaware," William & Mary coach Jimmye Laycock said, "and they have the real good young running back. And, of course, Devlin at quarterback is a very good player."
The special teams have been solid. Place-kicker Mike Perry had a team-high 99 points and made 18-of-24 field-goal attempts, with a long of 47 yards. But he's missed five of his 50 extra-point attempts.
Punter Ed Wagner has a 40.5-yard average. The Blue Hens haven't returned any punts or kickoffs for touchdowns, but the coverage teams have performed well.
Delaware was the 2003 FCS champion and reached the 2007 title game before falling to Appalachian State. Ten of its players have played in six or seven playoff games each.
"When we played Delaware, they reminded me of Villanova from a year ago," Trainer said. "There might be a better offensive unit. Defensive unit, it would be hard to argue. When we played them and saw them on film weeks after that, in term of offense, defense and special teams, I'm not sure there's a better team in the country at this level. They really don't have any weaknesses."