Blue Hens and Gamecocks face off for a spot in the semifinals
Delaware and Jacksonville State took very different routes to get to the spring season, but the end result is the same: a showdown on Sunday in the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs.
The Jacksonville State Gamecocks were one of the few FCS teams to play in the fall and used that 3-1 start, including a road win over FBS program FIU, to find a rising star quarterback and propel them to a 7-1 spring that earned them an Ohio Valley Conference title. After nine months of football, they're just two more wins away from their first-ever national championship.
Delaware, meanwhile, sat out the fall and started its spring schedule late on March 6. The Fightin' Blue Hens had to weather two cancellations but were awarded the CAA title by a vote of the conference's athletic directors following an undefeated 6-0 record that included wins over ranked Rhode Island and Villanova. Delaware was voted the CAA's champion over fellow undefeated (and No. 3 seed) CAA mate James Madison, receiving the conference's automatic bid in the process.
Now the schools will meet for the second time ever — and the first time since Delaware won a Division II quarterfinal matchup in 1978. A likely matchup against No. 1 seed South Dakota State looms next week, but FCS fans should have one of the tightest playoff games on Sunday's slate to enjoy first thanks to two great defenses.
FCS Playoffs Quarterfinal: Delaware at Jacksonville State
Kickoff: Sunday, May 2 at 3 p.m. ET
Spread: Jacksonville State -3.5
When Delaware Has the Ball
Quarterback Nolan Henderson continues to improve in his junior year, as he has increased his completion percentage from 56.3 percent in 2019 to 69.7 percent. Consistency has been the key, too: he's had at least one touchdown in every game. He's seen a slight uptick in interceptions, but three in six games have allowed the ground attack to keep the Blue Hens in the game.
Dejoun Lee is the star of the offense with 533 rushing yards and five touchdowns on 90 attempts, plus another 12 receptions (third on the team). He's undersized (5-7, 185) and has been inconsistent at times. In last week's first-round matchup against Sacred Heart, he only had 35 yards on 13 carries. But against ranked Rhode Island, he piled on 221 yards on 21 attempts.
Stopping Lee will be the primary goal for a Gamecock defensive front that stars Chris Hardle and DJ Coleman. The duo has excelled more as pass-rush specialists (14 combined sacks) than run stoppers, but this is a unit that ranked 11th nationally against the run at 91.1 yards allowed per game. Also keep an eye on safety Nicario Harper, who has a team-high 83 tackles and three interceptions.
When Jacksonville State Has the Ball
Without the abbreviated fall slate, the Gamecocks may not have realized what they had in quarterback Zion Webb, who came on for injured starter Zerrick Cooper in October. All he's done since then is complete 58.6 percent of his passes for 1,763 yards with 13 touchdowns and eight picks and add another 384 yards and five scores on the ground.
Avoiding those costly turnovers will be key since Delaware is tied for eighth nationally with nine interceptions, led by defensive backs Nijuel Hill and Joe Zubillaga, who have two each. Even beyond turnovers, the Blue Hens have held opponents to just 111.3 passing yards per game, which ranks third nationally. Delaware's other top priority will be slowing down preseason All-American tight end Trae Berry, who leads Jacksonville State with 29 catches and 482 receiving yards.
To win on Sunday, the Gamecocks will likely have to run the ball effectively. And they have the horses to do it. Josh Samuel (138 att., 773 yds., 8 TDs) and Uriah West (133, 679, 7) form dangerous complements to Webb. In JSU's dominant 49-14 win over Davidson last round, the team piled on 225 ground yards on 28 attempts with five touchdowns.
With two strong defenses and rushing attacks, this is one of the better strength-on-strength games we'll get in the FCS playoffs. With how often each team has forced turnovers, that may be the deciding factor, but the Gamecocks get the slightest edge with home-field advantage and a deeper stable of running threats.
Prediction: Jacksonville State 17, Delaware 16