Football Wins CAA Championship, Clinches Playoff Auto-Bid In 21-13 Thriller At Delaware

NEWARK, DE --- In April, the balance of power in the Battle of the Blue rivalry flipped, if for a moment. Delaware entered the game 4-0 and needing a win in Pennsylvania to clinch the CAA Championship, and proceeded to batter Villanova, emerging with a 27-20 victory that was not as close as the scoreline showed. 

It was the Blue Hens’ first victory over the Wildcats since 2011, the first on campus since 2005, and the performance was such that one wondered whether this would bring in an era of Delaware dominance to a recently one-sided rivalry. The Blue Hens stormed the field at the end of the game, taunting the fans and dancing midfield, and as the Blue Hens began an FCS Playoff run that ended in the semifinals, the Wildcats stewed in defeat and humiliation.

On Saturday, the Wildcats emerged with an opportunity to make things right, in the exact opposite scenario as in the Spring. This time, Villanova entered the game as the ones needing a win to clinch the CAA Conference title on the road, while Delaware could only be motivated by the prospect of playing spoiler. Although it wasn’t the dominating performance that Delaware enjoyed in the Spring, the Wildcats rode a three minute stretch of dominance to a 21-13 victory, clinching the CAA Championship and bringing the Battle of the Blue back to Villanova.

“We have a Delaware wall in our locker room that we look at 365 days a year,” graduate linebacker Forrest Rhyne said. “And we have a permanent spot for this trophy because it belongs where we're at. Since I’ve been at Villanova, this is my fifth year, I had never not seen the trophy. So losing that trophy meant everything to us. And we got it back.”

The game was a defensive stalemate for much of the contest. After Delaware’s graduate running back Dejoun Lee scored on a 16 yard touchdown run with five minutes remaining in the first half, the following drives from both teams resulted in two punts, halftime, another punt, a turnover on downs, and four more consecutive punts. Both teams had 14 first downs in the game, and Villanova went six for 17 on third downs, while Delaware went just four for fourteen.

At the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Blue Hens capitalized on solid starting field position and put together their best drive of the game, utilizing the legs of Lee and redshirt junior quarterback Anthony Paoletti to reach the Villanova red zone. However, Rhyne stopped a Paoletti rush on first down, junior defensive back Darius Pickett made a tackle on an attempted screen, and the Wildcats forced Delaware to settle for three points, keeping the game within a score.

After the ensuing kickoff was kicked out of bounds, the Wildcats took over at their own 35 yard line, and the offense found the spark it was desperately looking for. Graduate quarterback Daniel Smith found junior wide receiver Jaaron Hayek on a crossing route in the middle of the field, and Hayek fought off multiple would-be tacklers before being finally taken down at the one. Senior running back Jalen Jackson punched it in from the one to take a 14-13 lead, stunning the home crowd with a 36 second touchdown drive.

The Wildcat defense stepped up on the next possession, forcing a three and out and a punt. Smith did not hesitate and found junior receiver Rayjoun Pringle up the sideline for a 41 yard completion on the first play of the drive, and one play later found Hayek open up the middle for a 24 yard touchdown, extending the lead to eight.

“I [had] super confidence that our staff will get things going and obviously they did, and I have super confidence in our team that they'll just keep plugging along until something pops,” Villanova head coach Mark Ferrante said. “I wouldn't say I was frustrated, I would just say, it's like, okay, we just need that one big something to maybe get some momentum in our favor. Maybe [it] came a little later than I anticipated, or I had hoped, but we finally got it to where we needed it and to come away with the victory.”

With five minutes remaining, the Wildcats had an opportunity to finish the game by either chewing clock or finding another score, and it looked like the Wildcats were well on their way after an 11 yard completion on third down from Smith to Jackson. However, Jackson was stopped on the next run, and after an incomplete pass the ‘Cats needed something from Smith to extend the drive. Perhaps already thinking of making a play, Smith fumbled the snap, and the Blue Hens recovered to start their drive at the Villanova 21 with just three minutes remaining.

The Blue Hens put the ball in the hands of Lee, who ran for 54 yards on the day. Lee led Delaware to the two yard line, but an attempted sneak on third down from redshirt junior quarterback Zach Gwynn found no rushing room. On fourth down with 1:12 remaining, both teams called timeouts to set up their plays, and the Villanova defense was able to stop redshirt sophomore running back Mateo Vandamia on a pitch just inches from the goal line, clinching the victory for the ‘Cats.

“We said it coming into the game and obviously it came true,” Ferrante said. “Typical CAA Battle of the Blue, Delaware versus Villanova game. It's always interesting, and to get that fourth down stop on a goal line made it extremely interesting.”

Delaware head coach Danny Rocco was downtrodden after the loss.

“Disappointing ending to a disappointing season,” Rocco said. “It’s a game of inches and that’s kind of where this thing ended up today.”

“As I've experienced through my career, they played really good football for about eight minutes,” Rocco said. “And [in] that eight minute time span, they won the game.”

Smith completed 12 of 26 passes in the game for 208 yards, of which 129 came via three completions in the two late touchdown drives. Smith added 47 yards on the ground, while graduate running back Justin Covington rushed for 44 as well.

Gwynn led the Blue Hens by completing 14 of 27 passes for 143 yards, throwing an interception. Paoletti also had an interception, completing just one pass on the day, the final shovel pass to Vandamia.

After the game, Rocco downplayed the motivation of revenge for Villanova going into the game. 

“I'll guarantee it motivated them,” Rocco said. “I don't think there's any doubt about that… the idea of getting the auto bid, which they have by winning today, and then the idea of being able to pay back the loss from last spring, I'm sure both of those things factored into their motivation.”

“It feels great to call this team champions,” Ferrante said postgame, fighting back tears. “I don't want to get emotional... but I'm super proud of everybody on this team and the coaching staff and everybody, support staff, and everyone involved with this program.”

With the CAA championship, the Wildcats have clinched an automatic bid to the FCS Playoffs, although their 9-2 record would have been enough to get an at-large bid. The bracket will be released tomorrow at 12:30 live on ESPNU, and the Wildcats are looking forward to mounting a postseason run.

“I like everything about this team,” Ferrante said. “In the last few weeks, [we] got a little healthier. I know they're hungry. I know they're humble… We'll enjoy this one for tonight and into tomorrow and see what lies ahead. And we'll be ready for whatever challenges are thrown our way.”