Monday, October 29, 2007

The Battle by the Bay

I wasn't there on November 10, 1979. I didn't get to see Delaware erase the 31-7 halftime deficit or hear the zealot on the P.A. system shout, "Let's hang the chicken," as Delaware shocked the hometown fans at Falcon Stadium coming from behind to beat Youngstown State 51-45 in the famed "Shootout" game.

It was still a bit before my time in September of 1985 when Delaware shut down the Naval Academy and their Heisman hopeful Napoleon McCallum with the one man wrecking crew Daryl Booker leading the way. The Delaware defender recorded a record twenty-three tackles as the Hens hung on for a 16-13 win over the Mids at Delaware Stadium.

Like many fans in the pre-Internet and pre-ESPN Everything days of 1993, I was fighting through the static on my AM radio to try and follow that unbelievable frozen Thanksgiving weekend opening round playoff game from Missoula, Montana when Delaware came back and edged the Grizzlies 49-48.

During my nine years in the booth, I have seen some great ones including the amazing regular season finale against Villanova in 2000 when Delaware climbed out of a twenty-five point hole en route to a 59-42 win. There was the Navy game in 2003 when Delaware trailed by fourteen before they could even muster a first down. The Hens would use a fake punt to turn the momentum in their favor eventually holding on for an incredible for 21-17 road win. And then a few weeks later, I witnessed the classic 51-45 triple overtime win over Massachusetts setting up the run all the way to the 2003 I-AA National Championship.

It may be too soon to properly judge where this past weekend's game at the Naval Academy falls in the storied history of the University of Delaware Football Program, but in the immediate aftermath, it sure feels like one of the greatest games ever.

The Hens became the sixth division I-AA team to defeat a I-A this year, and were clearly the better team on Saturday prevailing 59-52 in a back and forth game at Navy that sometimes felt more like ping-pong then football, and nobody on the field was better than UD quarterback Joe Flacco who played with the confidence of a guy who brought his own paddle.

Flacco has been outstanding both on and off the field since transferring to Delaware from Pitt, but against Navy's meager defense, he took his game to a whole other level completing thirty passes for 434-yards and four touchdowns. Whether the extra motivation came from wanting to stick it to his former coach Dave Wannstedt who refused to release him from his scholarship at Pitt and had embarrassingly lost to Navy a couple of weeks prior in double overtime because of a horrible coaching decision, or because he knew that Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weiss with all of his NFL connections would be studying the tape as his team prepared for its annual match-up with Navy the following week, or it was because Flacco knew how important a win over Navy would be in the eyes of the selection committee knowing that Delaware might have to rely on an at-large bid to make the post-season. Regardless of the reasons, Flacco was as dynamic as a QB could be, maybe even Tom Brady-like, especially on the final drive of the first half when he completed five in a row for a touchdown in under a minute.

Obviously, Flacco was not alone. His former Pitt teammate, tight end Robbie Agnone helped twist the Wannstedt knife a bit while having his best day ever grabbing a career high 7 balls and rumbling for 133-yards. Omar Cuff was, well, Omar Cuff. The Delaware senior running back padded his highlight reel with another 148-yards and four more touchdowns breaking the Delaware single season touchdown mark with his nation's best twenty-eight scores.

Also contributing was Josh Baker who had the most acrobatic play of the day as he fought for the ball in mid-air ripping it away from Navy defender Rashawn King.

As impressive as Flacco and the offense were, this game may have been won by Delaware's defense which probably sounds strange knowing that Navy scored 52 points and compiled over 500-yards. But the defense broke serve just enough by forcing two fumbles and getting one huge stop on fourth down to give Delaware the advantage in this back and forth match.

I might not have been at the "Shootout" game against Youngstown in 1979, but one man who was is Delaware Head Coach KC Keeler who was the starting middle linebacker for the Hens that day having to move over from his usual and more familiar outside spot. Earlier today, I asked Keeler about that game and how he felt afterwards. He said that the entire team was physically and emotionally exhausted, but they knew that they could not afford to enjoy the euphoria of the win because they had to go right back to work and get ready to hit the road again the following week and play a very tough Colgate team.

That is exactly the case for this year's team as they have to quickly forget about this great Navy win as the most challenging and most important part of their schedule lay ahead of them starting this week against James Madison following with Richmond and Villanova.

Keeler's 1979 team was able to put the Youngstown "Shootout" behind them and refocus themselves not only for the following week but for a playoff run all the way to the Division II National Championship. As a coach, his 2003 team was able to use their Navy and UMass wins as catapults for their championship run.

What is in store the rest of the way for this Delaware team, and how will history look back on this Navy win?

I don't know, but it is sure going to be fun to be there to find out.

Bill Komissaroff

Saturday, October 20, 2007

On The Clock

It's time.

Delaware Stadium is sick; Delaware Stadium is suffering; and Delaware Stadium isn't going to get any better.

My father always used to say that the length of a minute depends on what side of the bathroom door you were on. For people waiting in line to use the troughs at the venerable venue on South College Avenue, that minute must sometimes seem like an eternity.

There was a time, not too long ago, when Delaware Stadium was a crown jewel. A palatial pigskin palace envied by all from Amherst to Zable. That time, unfortunately, has passed.

The "time keeper" was the issue last Saturday as Delaware hosted Northeastern in front of a large homecoming crowd. It was not the first time that the scoreboard and game clock zonked out; just the latest. The result was that twenty thousand plus fans (and broadcasters) in attendance watched game without the luxury of knowing how much time was left which is just the type of vital information that UD fans have come to expect. I felt especially bad for that guy who tries to time his trip to the trough for just before the half.

This past weekend's Clockgate was just the latest in what is starting to become a long list of issues with the stadium, the facilities, and the field.

It just doesn't seem to make sense to start throwing money at one or two specific issues when the Titanic is sinking.

I would think that the luxury boxes and corporate sponsorships alone would pay for most of the cost, if not all of it and more, for a brand new Delaware Stadium built either on the exact same spot or right next door. And yes my motives here are completely selfish knowing that a new Delaware Stadium means a new press box, and not having to fight my way over, under, and through the throngs of my colleagues in the UD press corps jockeying just to try and get to the single stall in the press box and then hope that the line is not too long so I can get back to our spot at the other end before we have to go back on the air after halftime. Get stuck behind a scribe a bit too "liberal" with his Delaware Dogs during the first half and risk missing the third quarter kickoff.

I understand traditions, but older is not always better when it comes to stadiums. The night before the Delaware-New Hampshire game I went to Fenway Park with the crew to see the Red Sox in game two of the Division Series against the Angels. As cool as Fenway is, and I know I am committing sacrilege here, it is just not that much fun sitting in those tiny little seats for five hours angled the wrong way with no leg room jammed in like a herring next to some drunk Sox fan clapping for Manny while holding both of his plastic draft beer cups in his teeth.

Delaware Football has an incredible history steeped in tradition. A large part of the fabric of that tradition has been and always will be tied to Delaware Stadium; the two are almost synonymous. But, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, this is not the end of Delaware Football. It is not even the beginning of the end, but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

Its time to put Delaware Stadium out of its misery.

Bill Komissaroff

Monday, October 08, 2007

Mistake Free Or Die

So much went wrong for the University of Delaware Blue Hen football team in their 35-30 loss at New Hampshire on Saturday that, at times, it was hard to imagine this was the same team that had cruised through its first five ballgames unscathed. There were just too many mental mistakes, missed assignments, and missed tackles. The team also had poor communication, poor protection, too many penalties, and one very costly turnover.

During warm-ups before the game, tight-end Robbie Agnone felt like something was off. He couldn't quite put his finger on it at the time, but, in retrospect, he felt like the team was over confident.

"There was a different attitude", Agnone said on Monday, "but I thought we could overcome it once the game started."

Unfortunately for Delaware by then it was too late.

Two consecutive plays late in the first half epitomize Delaware's problems on and off the field. Facing a fourth down and five at the fifty yard line, the Hens sent out their punt team. Head Coach KC Keeler had alerted his coaches that he might want to try a fake. The Delaware coaches up in the booth and on the sidelines, who were having problems with their headsets throughout the entire game, thought they heard Keeler call for a fake when in fact he had called just the opposite. While the Hens were confused and snapped it to the upback, New Hampshire's defense was not in the least bit confused or surprised as they tackled Fred Andrew behind the line of scrimmage for a five yard loss.

On the very next play UNH backup quarterback RJ Toman, playing for the injured Ricky Santos, brought his offense out to the line of scrimmage and as the Delaware coaches were screaming to remind their players about "sudden changes", Toman threw a lateral pass to Keith LeVan who then threw it forty-five yards downfield to Mike Boyle who was standing all alone for a touchdown. Just like they draw it up on the sandlot.

The fear for Delaware fans is not that the Hens lost, after all it was on the road against a tough conference opponent that had backed itself into a corner with two early conference losses. It was how they lost. They were unprepared to play and came out flat. Perhaps the team had become too enamored with itself and its 5-0 record, or perhaps they thought they could just to show up and win as they seemingly had in their first five games.

After the game, Coach Keeler told us on the radio that he thought New Hampshire had a "nice ball club, but they are not quite up to the level that we are."

The problem is that we are not exactly sure what that level is yet.

We know that Delaware is a good team. There is just too much talent for it not to be. But what we don't know yet is whether Delaware is a championship team.

Championship teams don't stall three first half drives because of procedure penalties. They don't let opposing quarterbacks scramble consistently for first downs and touchdowns. And they don't get stuffed on a must have fourth and one using a play that they practice so much the players must see it in their sleep.

On Monday Keeler told his team that they can't let New Hampshire beat them twice. He is right. Since championship teams rarely go undefeated, one thing they must always do is bounce back after a loss.

The Hens will have that opportunity this Saturday in front of a huge homecoming crowd at Delaware Stadium when they play a Northeastern team that gave James Madison fits and is apparently better then their 1-4 record.

If Delaware can rebound and take care of Northeastern this weekend, they would be 6-1 going into the bye week, and still be in a position to achieve everything they want and dream of this year. However they must play better. Because while championship teams can often survive the mishaps and mistakes of a game like Saturday's once.

They rarely do twice.

Bill Komissaroff