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

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