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Monday, January 18, 2021

Delaware's Great Rivalry and Déjà Vu

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Kevin Noonan
Kevin Noonan
Kevin Noonan has covered and commented on the Delaware sports scene for more than 30 years, everything from amateur recreation leagues and high schools to local colleges and the Philadelphia professional teams. He’s been voted Delaware Sportswriter of the Year multiple times and currently covers the Philadelphia Eagles for CBSSports.com and teaches creative writing courses at Wilmington University.

For a brief moment, it looked like this could be the year. Delaware State appeared to be in complete control and Delaware looked a little bit lost and, hey, miracles happen all the time in the world of sports.

Then reality set in and the Delaware football team settled down and took over its annual intrastate rivalry with Delaware State, rolling to a 38-14 victory on Saturday at Delaware Stadium.

Actually, Delaware has always had control of this still-young rivalry. It took decades for the state’s two FCS (aka Division I-AA) teams to finally meet and it took the whims of the NCAA Tournament selection committee to pair the two schools in the 2005 playoffs, when Delaware — quarterbacked by Joe Flacco and on its way to the national championship game – swatted the Hornets 44-23.

They’ve played four times now and Delaware has won all four by an average score of 39-14. The Hornets threw a scare into their bigger cousins when they made Delaware work hard for a 27-19 victory in 2009, but then the Blue Hens breezed to a 45-0 victory last year and the distance between the two, while just about an hour’s drive on Route 1, appeared to be light years in parity.

The last thing anybody wants is this to become a joke, a game that Delaware always wins by 50 points. Delaware will always be better, but we want this game to be competitive, for the sake of the coaches, players and fans.

Some year – maybe not in our lifetimes – Delaware State will walk into Delaware Stadium and shock the Hens. The Hornets would have to play a perfect game and the Hens would have to help them with some big mistakes, but it will happen.

And, for a while, it looked as if this year could be the year. Delaware State moved the ball easily in the first quarter, but even though they dominated Delaware statistically, the Hornets still trailed 7-0 after Delaware’s Ricky Tunstall returned a tipped interception 91 yards for a touchdown, just when it appeared the Hornets were going to punch it in and take the lead.

That play seemed to suck the life out of the Delaware State players, who realized they had delivered their best shot and even though it wobbled the Hens, it didn’t knock them down, much less out. Maybe next year…

“Delaware State did a great job of executing,’’ Delaware coach K.C. Keeler said. “But we hung in there and got the win.”

Actually, this is already a win-win situation for both teams. Delaware was penalized in the past because, like most schools, it always schedules its first game against an overmatched opponent — former Marquette basketball coach Al McGuire used to say that he opened every season with East Cupcake State. For years, Delaware’s cupcake was West Chester, a Division II team, and that hurt the Hens when it came to qualifying for an at-large playoff berth. So, the Blue Hens knew they needed to find another non-conference Division I-AA team they could usually beat handily.

Conveniently for them, Delaware State was right down the road.

As for the Hornets, their real reward is more tangible – money. Their annual trip to Newark is their biggest payday of the season and that’s something they can’t ignore. Plus its great exposure and experience for them to play against a team from the Colonial Athletic Association, the best FCS conference in the nation.

And some day they will get the kind of win that shows up on the scoreboard and in the record book. Some day…

Contact Kevin Noonan at knoonan32@aol.com.


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