NEWARK, Del. — The streak lives on.
The University of Delaware and Delaware State University met on the gridiron for the ninth time Thursday night to open the 2019 season. All nine have been held at Delaware Stadium, and the Blue Hens improved to 9-0 over their neighbors to the south with a 31-13 win.
More than 15,000 fans piled in to see the contest, and half of them enjoyed the upgraded seating in the partially-renovated west-side stands.
“It’s wonderful to see the renovation, and there are just so many great people who are involved,” Delaware head coach Danny Rocco said. “It’s a new beginning for the school and the community, and so we’ve treated this season as a new beginning for our team.”
The Blue Hens (1-0) welcomed a new offensive coordinator, Jared Ambrose, who started as a graduate assistant at Delaware, and just spent the past decade as the offensive coordinator for in-conference rival, Towson.
Redshirt senior quarterback Pat Kehoe found a new favorite target in wide receiver Thyrick Pitts, who made six catches for 81 yards and a touchdown. The receiving corps was a question mark coming into the season, as the top four from last year either graduated or were drafted by the NFL.
After the rushing game stalled early, Kehoe took control, finishing 18-for-28 for 186 yards and two touchdowns. He credited his mostly new receivers for getting open and securing the football.
“They got their shot tonight and they stepped up,” he said. “It was a testament to how hard we worked in the offseason.”
The two teams traded punts to begin the game, though the Hornets (0-1) got the ball back at the Delaware 30-yard line when punt returner Jourdan Townsend dropped the ball. Delaware State could not convert, as Jose Romo-Martinez’s 48-yard field-goal attempt fell short.
The Blue Hens struck first on their second series, as kicker Jake Roth completed a 11-play drive with a 38-yard field goal.
Delaware State responded with two of its own field goals for a brief 6-3 lead with 7:11 left in the second quarter. It was possibly the Hornets’ first lead ever against Delaware, but it didn’t last long.
The Blue Hens cruised into Delaware State’s territory, needing only a minute to score their first touchdown of the season. With the Hornets bunched over to the left, Kehoe scrambled right and easily ran into the end zone for a 21-yard touchdown.
After Delaware State failed to score, Townsend made up for his previous blunder by returning the ensuing punt 47 yards. Kehoe made it a 16-6 game just three plays later by throwing a 24-yard pass down the middle to Owen Tyler, who made an over-the-shoulder catch and crossed the plane just as a defender tackled him.
“That was big for Jourdan,” Rocco said about his redeemed punt returner. “That’s the first ball I’ve seen him drop since he’s been here. He came over the sideline afterwards and asked if he was being taken out, but I said no. Then, he got that big run for us.”
Delaware took control in the third quarter. Roth added a second field goal, and then Kehoe and Pitts saved the best for last in what turned out to be the last play in the game for both of them. Kehoe threaded the needle on a fade route to the left corner of the end zone, and Pitts snagged the ball with a defender’s hands in his face for a 14-yard touchdown and a 25-6 lead late in the third.
“We kind of had a hitch, Pat and I, and we just converted it,” Pitts said with a smile.
Special teams delivered again early in the fourth quarter. With the defense quickly closing in, Romo-Martinez scrambled to his left and tried to get the punt off, but Brian Dennis was there to block it. He then picked the errant ball up and trotted to the house for a 14-yard return.
For its part, the Blue Hen defense kept Delaware State off the board for more than two quarters after its second field goal.
“We adjusted to the speed of the game in our secondary,” Rocco said. “I thought we did a better job of leveraging the quarterback. They threw a lot of 50/50 balls, and we defended most of them.”
The Hornets had to throw freshman backup quarterback Tylik Bethea into the fire after starter Shayne Smith left early in the second quarter with a hand injury. Bethea did well, finishing 10-of-18 for 137 yards and a touchdown.
Delaware State actually held a slight advantage in time of possession, but it was undone by 108 penalty yards.
“I’m very proud of our guys, but we’ve got some learning to do and some work to do,” Delaware State head coach Rod Milstead said. “Defensively, I think we played well, but we gave up two big plays that led to two big scores. Our team is young and it’s going to take a while to get this program where it needs to go.”
The Blue Hens backup crew played for the entire fourth quarter, and redshirt freshman Will Knight led all rushers with 68 yards on just four carries.
Delaware is happy to open with a win as it heads into a tough road game against Rhode Island, and top-ranked North Dakota State follows in Week 3.
“A lot of guys had their first taste of Division-I college football today,” Rocco said. “It’s so much easier to make corrections after a win. We’re a little more open to being critiqued.”