Delaware And New Hampshire To Advance, Win Bragging Rights
Delaware and New Hampshire meet in an intriguing quarterfinal playoff game that focuses attention on the state of northeast football
By Chuck Burton
College Sporting News
NEWARK, De. — Playoff matchups are always great, wherever they are held.
But of all the second round matchups, without question no other matchup evoked the animal spirits like the Lehigh/Delaware clash that happened in Newark, Delaware last weekend.
For a day, it was a renewal of a classic matchup between Northeast football programs.
If you were a Lehigh or Delaware fan last week, you were probably having a lot of fun in a week of playoff excitement.
And this week, Newark will play host Friday night on prime-time ESPN2 to another fantastic matchup of Northeast football as well, as New Hampshire returns to Tubby Raymond Field to face off against Delaware for the first time since quarterback Ricky Santos almost singlehandedly defeated Joe Flacco and the Blue Hens in a 52-49 shootout.
For Lehigh, Delaware, and New Hampshire, it was the best of times.
But this past week, there were two unhappy milestones involving Northeast football as well.
While Lehigh fans and Delaware fans were invoking Tubby Raymond and John Whitehead, and New Hampshire were planning their trip to Daytona Beach, in Massachusetts and Long Island the anniversary of the death of the Northeastern and Hofstra programs passed silently.
For fans and former players of those programs, it is the worst of times.
THE NORTHEASTERN STORY
"Because we had clarity of vision, we dropped football," said Northeastern president Joseph Aoun, in a Boston Globe article that appeared this October. "The community has ultimately been better off because we are seeking the best in terms of the student experience. And with respect to football, it was not optimal."
When Northeastern dropped football just as the 2009 college football season came to an end, it was a disappointing, but not unexpected, announcement.
The Huskies had made the FCS playoffs one time, but sustained success, especially in the always-tough Colonial Athletic Association, was hard to come by. And it did not help at all that their football field, Parsons Field, was widely derided as one of the worst in FCS.
But the Boston Globe article seemed to imply that Northeastern's president was quite interested in pulling the plug on their program for quite some time.
The article revealed that Aoun wrote an article "describing the process ... because other institutions wanted a playbook for discontinuing football and saw Northeastern as a possible model.
"In a two-year review of university athletics started in 2007, difficult questions about football kept surfacing," the report continued. "The status quo $3.5 million spent on a team that, in its final season, won three games and drew an average of 1,600 fans for home games was not an option. To be competitive in recruiting and retaining talent, the university determined it needed to either upgrade Parsons Field or build a new stadium."
"The price tag for better facilities: $20 million to $60 million. Was such an investment in one sport in the best interest of the broader institution? For Roby and others immersed in the issue, the answer that emerged was no."
Complaints on spending $3.5 million on the football program might seem to have merit on the surface — until you realize that the lion's share of that money was spent on scholarships for football players, going to some needy students and the most diverse team on campus.
And if the lack of a $60 million dollar facility was also extended as an excuse, what if Northeastern was able to rent out a facility built and financed by, say, Major League Soccer's New England Revolution?
"Following the lead of other Major League Soccer clubs, the Kraft family wants to build a 20,000- to 30,000-seat soccer stadium - possibly in an industrial no man's land that Somerville leaders want to turn into a vibrant commercial and residential district - and move the Revolution from Gillette Stadium," said Stacey James, a spokesman for the Kraft family, owners and operators of the MLS club.
While the facility is only on the drawing board at the moment — and has been for some time if it does happen — Northeastern could have been a great beneficiary, playing FCS football there in a facility that would rival the best in the CAA.
And it wouldn't have cost the Huskies a penny to build.
It's pretty striking that a year after dropping football, the folks at Northeastern still feel the need to justify their decision.
Unfortunately, it seems like the only real justification for their move is that the president simply didn't want football.
HOFSTRA FOOTBALL: ONE YEAR LATER
In contrast, down in Long Island, when Hofstra dropped a week later, it was greeted with near-universal shock around the world of Northeast football and the FCS world in general.
"As we continue to improve our academic programs and reputation, and plan the University's future, we have to consider the investment we make in all of the University's programs," Hofstra presdent Stuart Rabinowitz said in the official press release. "The cost of the football program, now and in the future, far exceeds the return possible from an FCS program, which does not generate significant national interest. Given that, along with the low level of interest, financial support and attendance among our students, our alumni and the community, the choice was painful, but clear."
Like Northeastern, the case for Hofstra's "investment" in football not generating returns rang very hollow. It is an ill-conceived idea that athletics needs to be a "money-making program" to be worthwhile to the student-athletes.
It's an idea that has been warped for all sorts of bad ends, started by infamous former Boston University president John Silber, who famously proclaimed that football "skews the entire athletic budget unless it's a money-making program."
The Terriers discontinued their football program in 1997, which seemed to provide Rabinowitz a model for discontinuing football at Hofstra.
It's amusing to think what other collegiate endeavors might apply to the "money-making" criteria. The philosiphy department? The English department? By these metrics, they should be dropped since they're not "making money". Why should we subsidize these students that just end up as roadies at Phish concerts?
One year later, Jerry Beach, the writer of the Defiantly Dutch blog marked the milestone of Rabinowitz' decision by catching up with some of the affected students.
"Itís a devastating day, for a lot of reasons," said Fordham head coach Tom Masella, who happened to be the head coach at Boston University in 1997 when Silber pulled the plug on their program. "In my case, I thought I was going to be at BU for a long, long time."
Masella still feels betrayed by Boston U.
"When you feel the rug's been pulled out from underneath you, it hurts.," Masella explained. "It hurts personally, but it hurts because you recruited some kids under the assumption that they were going to be playing football and getting a great education. So it's a painful thing."
Masella was fortune to land on his feet at Fordham.
"[FCS] football is something that has to be supported by the alumni and it has to be supported by the administration," Masella said. "And fortunately here at Fordham, both do. And that's a good thing."
It has also taken some time to get over what happened at Hoftsra.
"At first I was extremely bitter, just because of, I guess, the way the message was delivered to us," said former Hofstra wideout Drew Nelson, now with the Stony Brook Seawolves. "I wish they could have gone about it in a different way. I wish they could have been a little bit more honest with us. I still don't think to this day that they are 100 percent honest."
Turning a profit is a high standard to meet.
"If you look at the Division I level schools, there are 119, and I think only about 17 turn a profit." said Nelson. "So everyone's taking a loss. And [Hofstra] want[s] to say it's for a financial issue. I wish the head guy over there would have just said ëHey, look, we just donít want football."
AN EASTERN FCS PLAYOFF QUARTERFINAL
In 15 years, three Northeast football programs have closed up shop. And that deeply affects the other programs that remain, but none more than the CAA programs north of the Mason/Dixon line.
The University of Rhode Island has already announced that it will be moving its program to the NEC in 2013, and voluntarily reducing the number of athletic scholarships to 40 in order to compete there.
While it's a disappointment that the Rams will be leaving their former Yankee Conference rivals, at least they still have a program to save and the president is not advocating dropping the program since it's not a "moneymaker".
"Joining the NEC provides the best opportunity to advance our program further," said David Dooley, URI's president.
UMass is thinking about going the other direction, publicly mulling the possibility of joining FBS as a member of the MAC, joining Temple and a large number of small-time FBS programs in the midwest.
The reason for the potential move appears to as much about the disappearing number of peer schools in the Northeast playing football as it is playing for the GMAC Bowl.
Villanova, too, has been actively considering a trip to FBS as a part of the Big East, despite the fact that their fan base — even after a national championship — has not rallied behind the team the same way it does in basketball.
A major drawback is that Villanova doesn't really have a way to own and operate a stadium where they could play FBS games. VU's current, on-campus stadium, which lacks expansion capabilities, seats just 12,000 fans.
The Wildcats might have to pay rent to two different owners to play home games — not a great business plan when it's ostensibly to "make money".
Villanova is planning to make an announcement on a possible move to the Big East sometime after the end of the 2010 football season, as the Wildcats are still very much in contention to repeat as FCS national champions.
UMass could make an announcement on their plans soon thereafter, as Villanova's decision might affect their decision, too.
That makes fans of the programs in Maine and New Hampshire shift in their seats very uncomfortably. If Villanova and UMass both leave the CAA, the Wildcats' closest league mate will be Delaware, a seven-and-a-half-hour drive away. It's even longer from Orono, Me.
Fans are speculating that Maine might join the Patriot League — if the PL votes to offer scholarships in football — or drop the number of scholarships to 40 and join the NEC, or maybe even compete as independents.
In the context of all those goings-on, the excitement of the game between New Hampshire and Delaware this weekend serves as a reminder as to what's great about Northeast football — a game that promises to be an intense battle between some very talented teams.
The Wildcats and Blue Hens boast two of the best secondaries in all of FCS facing off in prime time this Friday.
And even though they're league foes in the CAA, oddly enough they didn't play against each other this season.
"When the CAA cobbled together its quirky 2010 schedule following the decisions by Northeastern and Hofstra to blow up their football programs, UNH fans looked at the one team they would miss — Delaware — and probably realized they were missing something significant, for better or for worse," New Hampshire beat writer Mike Zhe noted in an article this week in the Portsmouth Herald.
Through the quirks of CAA scheduling, New Hampshire have not played in Newark since 2006, and last played in 2007.
But through the magic of the playoffs, the league matchup that wasn't meant to be in the regular season will now be a do-or-die struggle for CAA supremacy.
The Wildcats and Blue Hens have not met that much in the past 10 years, but their meetings have been very memorable.
In 2004, UNH quarterback Mike Granieri tore knee ligaments in the first half of a season-opening game against the defending national champions from Delaware.
That forced unknown redshirt freshman Ricky Santos into the lineup.
Santos completed 10-of-11 passes to lead the Wildcats to a 24-21 upset win. He would propel the Wildcats from a middling Atlantic 10 team to a perennial playoff participant and individually, led to the 2006 Walter Payton Award for Santos.
In 2006, playing at the Tub, Santos had a field day in a 52-49 win, going 21-of-30 passing, with three passing touchdowns, two rushing touchdowns, and out-duelling Delaware quarterback Joe Flacco in a game that featured more than 1,000 yards of offense from both sides.
The 2007 season featured another unknown redshirt freshman quarterback who stepped in for an injured Ricky Santos and came away with a victory.
His name was R.J. Toman.
Toman out-duelled Joe Flacco and the Blue Hens in a 35-30 win.
Delaware coach K.C. Keeler had some fun this week with their history with the Wildcats, and the team they haven't beaten since 2003, the year the Blue Hens last won the national championship.
With Toman on the sidelines and replaced by Kevin Decker, who made his first start in last Saturday's 45-20 playoff win over Bethune-Cookman, Keeler figured out a script for Friday's game.
"I'm going to tell you exactly what's going to happen," Keeler said. "One of them's going to play and get knocked out, and the other one's not going to be able to play, and then they're going to bring a third guy in that we've never heard of before."
Sound a littler familiar?
"(This guy) was probably not even playing quarterback last week," Keeler added. "They probably moved him to quarterback so they'd have a back-up for the playoffs. And he'll throw 10-of-11 and beat us. So, yeah, I've got their game plan figured out."
Keeler might not be too far off the mark.
New Hampshire coach Sean McDonnell, a man as restrained as Keeler is outspoken, hinted that Decker might be the starter again this week. "
We'll figure that out as we go along," McDonnell said.
"Coming off a physical game against Bethune Cookman, you lose that extra day for healing for the Friday game," McDonnell added. "The only thing that helps us is that we see Delaware on tape all the time, and at this time of year you have a pretty good idea about what you want to do. We're excited to have an opportunity to play them, and on Friday night [on ESPN]."
It's hard not to look at the injury situation for New Hampshire with not only their quarterbacks, but also other key players like running back Dontre Peters and see that it might be a challenge for the Wildcats to repeat their recent success against Delaware.
Factor in, too, a long trip to and from balmy Daytona Beach and a short week to prepare for possible frigid, 20-degree temperatures in Newark, and it seems even more challenging.
"There's not much to take advantage of," McDonnell said of Delaware's defense. "It's a very physical, sound defense. They have physical people up front, I'm impressed with linebacker Matt Marcorelle and Paul Worrilow and their secondary with Walters and Bratton are great."
The biggest thing in Delaware's favor may be the veterans on its defense.
"They have unbelievable experience there, they fly to the ball, they tackle real well and they're a physical defense," McDonnell said.
Keeler also mentioned defense in the run-up to this Friday's game.
"If you look at New Hampshire, they have 33 sacks," Keeler said. "Like Lehigh last week, they're a totally different team now than they were at the beginning of the season."
Keeler gave special praise to the highly-respected McDonnell and his staff.
"I don't think anyone in the country does as good a job of coaching as those guys do," Keeler explained. "They have really good personnel, their defensive line is outstanding and they play with a lot of passion and a lot of speed. Cornerback Dino Vasso could be the best corner in the league."
BATTLES TO WATCH
1) Delaware quarterback Pat Devlin vs. the New Hampshire secondary.
Devlin has been incredibly efficient passing the ball this year — completing passes at a 67% clip — and was at his effective best versus Lehigh last week.
Devlin only has two interceptions all year — neither of them really from errant throws — and he'll be going against Vasso and the aggressive Wildcat defense, who have an eye-popping 23 interceptions on the year. Something will have to give.
2) Wideouts Terrance Fox and Joey Orlando vs. the Delaware secondary.
No matter who starts at quarterback for the Wildcats, the productive duo for New Hampshire, who have combined for 1,307 yards receiving and 13 touchdowns, will have to have productive days against the tough, physical Blue Hen secondary.
3) Delaware's offensive line vs. New Hampshire's defensive line.
The ESPN cameras might want to focus in on the trench when Delaware's on offense, as they will be trying to slow down one of the most aggressive defensive fronts, led by defensive end Brian McNally, they will have faced all year.
It's going to be cold down in Delaware, and while it won't be for the CAA championship — technically — it will be for more than just CAA bragging rights.
It will be a game to highlight what's great about Northeastern football - and what better a showcase, than in the freezing cold on ESPN on a Friday night?
The Wildcats will bring the noise, but Devlin and Delaware — the fresher team playing at home — have the system to excel in this type of environment.
Delaware 31, New Hampshire 17