NEWARK, DEL. — One week ago, it was unclear who Delaware’s starting quarterback would be when the Blue Hens hosted Penn.
The nod went to sophomore Nolan Henderson, who made the first start of his college career. It certainly won’t be his last.
Henderson threw three touchdown passes without an interception Saturday to lead Delaware to a 28-27 win over the Quakers at Delaware Stadium.
“It was definitely special and definitely a blessing to start for a program like this, but I really just try to treat it like another game,” Henderson said. “I’ve been out there for it, the only difference is I’m coming out for the first play.”
He completed 20-of-29 attempts for 260 yards passing. Two of his three touchdown passes came during a stretch of the second half in which the Blue Hens scored 21 unanswered points to overcome a 14-point second-half deficit.
The day couldn’t have started better for Henderson and the Delaware offense, which marched down the field for a 72-yard touchdown drive on the game’s opening possession. The young quarterback completed all four of his pass attempts on the methodical series, finishing with a 29-yard strike to wide receiver Thyrick Pitts to open the scoring.
The Blue Hens offense only managed to gain 54 more yards for the rest of the opening half.
“That was really fun. That was as scripted,” Delaware coach Danny Rocco said of the offense’s first possession. “We got off to a fast offensively, but we really sputtered through the rest of the first half. Defensively, they moved the ball on us up and down the field pretty regularly throughout the day. The defense played their best toward the end.”
Penn scored the game’s next 21 points. It took a 14-7 lead into halftime and grew the advantage to 21-7 less than four minutes into the second half on quarterback Nick Robinson’s third passing touchdown of the game.
Henderson threw touchdown passes on consecutive Delaware possessions in the third quarter to tie the score at 21. He first hit Gene Coleman for an 11-yard score and later found Bryce De Maille for a 17-yarder.
Freshman running back Will Knight, a high school teammate of Henderson’s, put Delaware ahead with a 6-yard run to the end zone with 7:36 left in the contest.
“Another game where we were trailing significantly – down two scores – we were able to come back and find a way to win,” Rocco said, referencing an overtime win over CAA rival Rhode Island two weeks prior. “That’s a real statement about the character of your kids and program and the commitment level of your student athletes. I was extraordinarily calm at halftime. I said ‘We’ve been here before.’”
But as Delaware’s lead appeared safe in the closing minutes, Penn’s Isaiah Malcome returned a punt 69 yards to a touchdown with 2:24 left in the game. Instead of kicking the extra point to tie the game, the Quakers went for the lead. Robinson’s pass fell incomplete and the Blue Hens held on to their 28-27 edge.
“Their best chance to finish the game was right there,” Rocco said of the gamble. “They may have never had a better opportunity, even if it goes into overtime, you don’t have a better opportunity than right here right now – one play.”
Follow Sean Grogan on Twitter: @Sean_CecilWhig