Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Why Don't We Do It On The Road?

The look on Delaware head coach KC Keeler’s face said it all. As he was waiting in the small terminal at the Marion County Regional Airport in Carbondale, Illinois late on Saturday night watching his team make their way through the makeshift security line, he looked completely spent. And understandably so. For the second week in a row, his team had just pulled off an improbable win in hostile territory; this time it was a 20-17 squeaker over the fourth seeded Southern Illinois Salukis to advance to the National Championship Game Friday in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

He may have been exhausted from all of the hours that he and his staff had already logged to get the team to this point or just knowing the prospect of all of the hours that were still ahead of them.

Regardless of how this season ends, however, the 2007 University of Delaware Football team is already officially a huge success, as it is now on the precipice of winning a second National Championship in just five years with only two-time defending National Champion Appalachian State in their way. For those of you scoring at home (or even if you are alone), we are talking about the same App State that started their season with that incredible win over Michigan in the Big House and the same App State that went through Richmond last week like a Ginsu through a tomato.

To make matters worse for Delaware, they will be playing on the road for a third straight week; and even though the Championship in supposed to be at a neutral site, App State’s close proximity to Chattanooga combined with Delaware’s horrible handling of the ticket allotment means that Hen fans might be outnumbered four or five to one.

Sounds like the Hens have them right where they want them.

Back in 2003 Delaware steamed rolled through the playoffs making short work of each opponent including a 40-0 drubbing of Colgate in a final game that was over at halftime. That year Delaware players were able to sleep in their own beds and play on their own field for the first three weeks of playoffs before heading down to Chattanooga where they played in front of a huge contingent of their own fans who showed up in droves like it was Mug Night at the old Stone Balloon.

This year has been a bit different. For the past two weeks, Delaware has had to fight, scratch, kick, and crawl for every yard, for every first down, and for every point along the way battling everything from Mother Nature, to the T.S.A., to two very talented football teams in Northern Iowa and Southern Illinois en route to two of the most satisfying wins in the program’s storied history.

One thing that this year’s team does have in common with its 2003 brethren, however, is that it seems to be peaking just at the right time.

Keeler is quick to deflect credit for the success to his team and to his staff, but this is Keeler’s team. They are a group of players that take everything thrown at them in stride and are as cool as their Oakley sunglasses wearing coach.

Nothing seems to faze them.

After the Southern Illinois win on Saturday, Keeler said something to the effect that his team may not be the best team in the country, but that they were one of only two teams still alive due to their incredible perseverance.

That may be true, but if they are able to muster the strength to overcome all of the obstacles that still lay ahead of them, thanks to the beauty that is the I-AA playoff system, the best team in the country is exactly what they will be.

Besides, what’s a little sleep and comfort when you have a memory like that for the rest of your life?

Bill Komissaroff

(Reporting this week from the beach in beautiful Bucerias, Mexico!)

Monday, December 03, 2007

Can't Find My Way Home

"Is this heaven?" "No, it's Iowa."
-Shoeless Joe and Ray Kinsella from A Field of Dreams.

"It's hard on the road, man."
-G Love.

The trip took a turn into the realm of the surreal on Sunday morning when word circulated that one of the three buses carrying the University of Delaware football team and its entourage including coaches, trainers, cheerleaders, support staff, and radio crew had crashed. We were en route from the Waterloo Regional Airport to a Bonanza Steak House somewhere in the middle of Iowa after waiting five plus hours for them to unsuccessfully de-ice our plane.

Fortunately word came back quickly that it was just a minor accident and no one was hurt. Whew. All I could think was, "Thank God this is all coming after a win," as the team was supposed to leave on a charter flight right after their quarterfinal playoff game in the UNI Dome on Saturday night against the University of Northern Iowa Panthers. However, the ice storm that blanketed the state and much of the Midwest took care of that. Although we were told to hang tight because there was still a chance to depart late night but after a couple of hours, those plans were scuttled, and we were hunkering down for the night.

Sunday was a long day of hurry up and wait, hurry up and wait starting with a 5:45 am wake-up call and ending late at night in the same room in the same hotel where we started. It was like the movie Groundhog Day meets Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

By the time Monday morning rolled around, it was back on the buses and back to the airport to try again. I half expected to see running back Omar Cuff and linebacker Eric Johnson on top of the fuselage de-icing the plane themselves and quarterback Joe Flacco in cockpit preparing for takeoff. Why not? They did everything else to ensure a successful Delaware weekend in Iowa. A weekend highlighted by an improbable 39-27 win over the top seeded Panthers in the most hostile environment that I have ever seen in college football.

And what a win it was. An instant classic whose lore will only grow with time because of the ice storm and all of the travel related tribulations afterwards.

At the outset it certainly did not seem like it was going to be Delaware's day. In fact after the first quarter, it looked like the Hens were in danger of getting blown out of the dome. On the opening possession, Delaware's offense suffered two false starts, a burned time-out, an injury to left guard Corey Nicholson, and a sack. All to the delight of the huge deafening UNI Dome crowd. Once on defense, the Hens allowed UNI to march down the field in five plays and score a touchdown in just 1:54. At the end of the first quarter Delaware trailed 10-0.

And then something happened.

It wasn't as dramatic as the Navy game back in 2003 when the Hens trailed 14-0 but seemingly turned the momentum completely around on one fake punt play. It was more subtle than that: a ten yard pass from Flacco to Mark Duncan for a first down, a ten yard pass to Aaron Love and another first down, three plays in a row to Cuff for ten more yards, and then a seven yard laser to Duncan for a score. Delaware had adjusted to the speed of the game and was on the board. The defense, who also adjusted and began to take some more risks, would then force a Panther three and out and the momentum had slowly begun to shift.

Later in the first half Flacco would orchestrate a twelve play 80-yard scoring drive hitting four different receivers along the way highlighted by a 21-yard strike to Duncan and culminating with a touchdown dart to tight end Rob Agnone on third down. On the second play of the ensuing UNI possession, Delaware linebacker Eric Johnson would scoop up a fumble and rumble 55-yards for a defensive touchdown.

In the second half several Delaware players would step up and make big plays including kicker Jon Striefsky who kicked the two longest field goals of his career after UNI blocked two extra points in the first half; Kervin Michaud who had a 40-yard kickoff return and a 33-yard reception on Delaware's last scoring drive late in the fourth quarter; Matt Marorelle who had a sack and a forced fumble and recovery single handily thwarting two UNI attempts to get back into the game; and Omar Cuff who became only the second runner all year to rush for 100-yards against the stingy UNI defense.

The biggest play of all, however, came about midway through the third quarter with Delaware clinging to a two point lead. The Hens were facing a third and thirteen from their own 25-yard line when Joe Flacco hit Mark Duncan on an incredible pitch and catch 44-yards down the field. Flacco narrowly avoiding the sack by rolling all the way to the sideline and Duncan somehow coming down with the catch that completely deflated the Panthers and silenced the 17,000 in the dome.

With the win, Delaware advances to the semifinals next Saturday at Southern Illinois and are now just one game away from playing for another National Championship.

Coincidentally, it was Northern Iowa who had weather related travel issues before their playoff game with Delaware in Newark back in 2003 that led to their demise. Hopefully being stuck in Iowa for an extra couple of days won't have a negative effect on Delaware next week. I don't think it it will. In fact, I think it will have a positive effect. This team bonded through the adversity and became even closer then it was before.

When the plane finally landed today at New Castle County Airport after five days in Iowa everybody cheered. We were home. We weren't going to wake up in the same bed in the same hotel room in icy Iowa again.

But for the players the jubilation was short lived because they also knew that once we touched down, it was time for them to get back to work, for it will be a quick turnaround for everyone as we head back out on the road to Southern Illinois on Thursday.

And no matter the forecast for Carbondale, I'll be sure to pack an extra couple of pairs of boxers this time. Just in case.

Bill Komissaroff