Spell Delaware with a capital 'D'
By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
Delaware cornerback Anthony Walters can't quite shake the painful image.
Thinking back to the 2007 NCAA Division I Championship Game, Walters remembers looking across to the Appalachian State sideline in the fourth quarter and seeing some of the starters already had their shoulder pads off. The smiles were probably bigger than the pads.
Perhaps defensive tackle Siddiq Haynes didn't focus on the sight as much. He had his head down while his thoughts were drowning in Delaware's 49-21 defeat.
To a man, the Delaware seniors believe that night in Chattanooga, Tennessee, will make them stronger on Friday night when the Blue Hens face Eastern Washington for the Football Championship Subdivision title. Both teams are 12-2 as they head into the first-ever meeting between the two programs that basically sit a nation apart.
"I think one advantage we may have is we're a senior-oriented team," defensive coordinator Nick Rapone said. "These kids have prepared for a national championship game when they were freshmen. They understand that Friday night is the focus point. All this other stuff is nice, but they understand it's about Friday night."
Anthony Walters started in the 2007 final against App State and will start again against Eastern Washington.
Eleven players, including injured wide receiver Mark Mackey, were part of the 2007 team, including seven on defense. It's that side of the ball that has separated the Blue Hens this season. They have surrendered 11.5 points per game, a full three points better than any other FCS team.
Walters, free safety Anthony Bratton and linebacker Matt Marcorelle, who was a defensive end at the time, were starters in the 2007 final against App State and will start again against Eastern Washington, but Haynes believes most of the younger players on that team were taken in by the magnitude of the game.
"Now it's 100 percent business because we know the struggle, we know the grind," he said. "For a lot of us, it may be our last game, whether we go onto the next level or not. We understand what we need to do. The focus is crazy right now because we're all focused on the goal of winning the national championship."
"If you had to put one label on the kids on defense," Rapone added, "it's 'blue collar,' meaning they punch the clock and they manage all moments. And that's because we're so senior-oriented. They don't panic, whether they are up or down."
The 54-year-old Rapone is a Delaware native out of New Castle who is in his fifth season coaching the Blue Hens. He recently was named the FCS coordinator of the year by Footballscoop.com. He considers Haynes, Marcorelle and Walters to be the go-to players on each unit of his defense.
Delaware's defense was dominant from the start of the season. The Blue Hens posted a shutout of Division II West Chester in the season-opener and didn't allow a touchdown in the following two games either. But Rapone believes their 13-10 win at James Madison in the fifth game was when the defense learned how special is could be this season.
"I think they realized who they were the second play of the James Madison game," Rapone said, "when (JMU) knocked out (Delaware quarterback Pat) Devlin and we had to put a freshman quarterback (Trevor Sasek) in. There are no excuses, we had to hold that game down. We knew they had it in them, but I think that's when they said, 'OK, it's up to us.'"
Delaware's 4-3 defense is built around individual assignments. When players maintain their responsibilities, the defense swallows up ball carriers. In addition to Haynes, Marcorelle, Walters and Bratton, the Blue Hens' current defensive players who also were part of the 2007 championship game are defensive end Chris Morales, linebacker Benard Makumbi and cornerback Tyrone Grant. Starting defensive tackle Justin Johnson was a redshirt that season, but traveled to the championship game.
"Experience brings trust, so we trust each other," Walters said. "We're also more focused than we've ever been since I've been here -- to one goal."
Eastern Washington is expected to play without All-America running back Taiwan Jones because of a broken left foot. Delaware's goal is to limit his replacement, freshman Mario Brown, and the rest of the Eagles' offense on first downs and put them in difficult situations on second and third downs. The Eagles are a balanced team, with 10 more pass attempts than rushing attempts this season.
Unlike EWU, which is playing in the national championship for the first time, Delaware is playing in a final -- either Division II or FCS -- for the sixth time.
The Delaware seniors just want a better ending than in 2007.
"As a football player, you understand if you make it to that venue you want to actually win," Haynes said. "I think that's what's helping to motivate us, a lot of the seniors, to actually take it all the way."
NEWS & NOTES: Both teams arrived in Frisco Tuesday night ... ESPN2 will televise Friday's FCS championship game, beginning at 7 p.m. (et) ... A crowd of 10,000-13,000 is expected at Pizza Hut Park, which will host the next three championship games ... The campuses in Newark, Delaware, and Cheney, Washington, are 2,537 miles part, making them the second-farthest opponents in NCAA I FCS championship game history. Nevada and Georgia Southern, the 1990 finalists, are 2,602 miles apart ... Thursday night, The Sports Network and Fathead.com will host the 24th Annual FCS Awards Presentation at the Embassy Suites and Frisco Convention Center. Awards to be handed out are the Walter Payton (FCS outstanding player), Buck Buchanan (FCS outstanding defensive player) and Eddie Robinson (FCS coach of the year). Former NFL linebacker Gary Reasons, a three-time FCS All-America at Northwestern State, will serve as the master of the ceremony.