Listing Delaware's biggest NCAA football playoff upsets before trip to No. 1 South Dakota State

It’s been 18 years since the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision Tournament lost its opening playoff game.

Delaware tries to end that drought Saturday at 3 p.m. EST at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium in Brookings, South Dakota.

Blue Hen playoff teams have pulled upsets before, and they’ll aim for a big one this time.

Top-seeded and No. 1-ranked South Dakota State (10-1) is a significant obstacle for the 23rd-ranked Blue Hens (8-4). The Jackrabbits have won 10 straight since a 7-3 loss to Big Ten Iowa and captured the Missouri Valley Football Conference championship by beating North Dakota State, winner of seven of the last nine FCS titles.

Certainly, the Blue Hens know first-hand what a difficult foe South Dakota State is, having lost 33-3 there in the 2021 spring FCS semifinals. Most of the players on that team are on the 2022 squad, Delaware’s winningest in 12 years.

Delaware quarterback Nolan Henderson runs for a first down in the first quarter at Jacksonville State in the 2021 spring FCS quarterfinals.
Delaware quarterback Nolan Henderson runs for a first down in the first quarter at Jacksonville State in the 2021 spring FCS quarterfinals.

But the Blue Hens, coming of a 56-17 first-round rout of Saint Francis while South Dakota State was enjoying a bye, won’t limit their aspirations and do present challenges of their own.

“The team in the Missouri Valley we think has the best skill, our defensive staff feels Delaware’s skill is better,” South Dakota State coach John Stiegelmeier said of the Blue Hens’ offensive weapons. “You’re just talking about pure athletic ability. Then they have the grit and the skill to make the play.”

Having a proven, successful quarterback like Nolan Henderson allows Delaware to make the most of that talent, he added.

PLACK ATTACK:CAA honoree gives Delaware double threat at safety for NCAA playoff

The last time an FCS tourney top seed lost its tournament opener was when Southern Illinois fell 35-31 against Eastern Washington in 2004. The year before, top-seeded McNeese State was drubbed 35-3 at Northern Arizona in its opener.

Overall, the No. 1 team has lost its first game five times since there were seeds in the I-AA/FCS bracket beginning in 1981.

“We look forward to the challenge,” Delaware running back Kyron Cumby said. “This is why you come to Delaware and coach [Ryan] Carty preaches it. You come to Delaware to play in big games like this.”

Here are six previous upsets by the Blue Hens in NCAA playoff games:

Delaware quarterback Anthony Paoletti runs the football at Jacksonville State in the NCAA quarterfinals.
Delaware quarterback Anthony Paoletti runs the football at Jacksonville State in the NCAA quarterfinals.

May 2, 2021 – Delaware 20, Jacksonville State 14

Only four teams were seeded in the 16-team 2021 spring FCS bracket after the COVID-19 pandemic postponed the fall season. Delaware was not one of them. That sent the unbeaten Blue Hens to No. 4 Jacksonville State in Alabama for an imposing quarterfinal matchup. The Blue Hens scored on their first two possessions on drives covering 75 and 89 yards to immediately force Jacksonville State to play catch-up. Short touchdown runs by Anthony Paoletti and Dejoun Lee finished those. Against the Blue Hens’ formidable defense, that was too much to ask of the host Gamecock and Delaware went on to a 20-14 win. Henderson completed 18 of 28 passes for 239 yards with Gene Coleman II’s 10 catches covering 129 yards. Zach Gwynn also made key completions when Henderson was briefly sidelined with a left shoulder injury. Ryan Coe kicked two field goals. Jacksonville State was limited to 200 total yards, punted nine times and had eight first downs, four coming on a final drive leading to a last-minute TD. The Gamecocks didn’t have their first third-down conversion until there was 1:19 left in the game. Losing All-OVC quarterback Zion Webb to a left knee injury on their second series undermined the hosts.

JACKRABBITS NEXT:No. 1 South Dakota State looms but Blue Hens treasure return trip

Dec. 8, 2007 – Delaware 20, Southern Illinois 17

The Blue Hens had slammed the Salukis in a 2003 first-round match-up in Newark and the hosts certainly relished the chance to avenge that defeat on a damp, chilly night in Carbondale. They were 12-1 having only lost to Gateway Conference rival Northern Iowa and, at No. 4, were the only seeded team left. SIU jumped to a 10-0 lead. But the UD defense came to life and Joe Flacco did his thing. Delaware took the lead on Flacco’s TD passes of 8 yards to Robbie Agnone and 9 yards to Kervin Michaud and Jon Striefsky’s 47-yard field goal. Craig Turner’s 88-yard kick-off return for a touchdown then stole the Hens’ momentum and tied it 17-17 with 9:52 left. But Striefsky’s 24-yard field goal with 6:58 to go put Delaware back ahead, closing a 10-play, 67-yard drive featuring Flacco’s 24-yard throw to Michaud on a third-and-4 from the UD 32. A fourth-down sack and safety Anthony Walters’ interception thwarted two subsequent Salukis possessions.

Delaware quarterback Joe Flacco (5) leans in to center Kheon Hendricks (70) to get their signals straight above the crowd noise as left guard Jon Herrman listens in during the first quarter against the University of Northern Iowa in a quarterfinal matchup of the NCAA Division I-AA playoffs Dec. 1, 2007, in the UNI Dome in Cedar Falls.
The News Journal/
Delaware quarterback Joe Flacco (5) leans in to center Kheon Hendricks (70) to get their signals straight above the crowd noise as left guard Jon Herrman listens in during the first quarter against the University of Northern Iowa in a quarterfinal matchup of the NCAA Division I-AA playoffs Dec. 1, 2007, in the UNI Dome in Cedar Falls. The News Journal/

Dec. 1, 2007 – Delaware 39, Northern Iowa 27

This time, No. 1-seeded and unbeaten Northern Iowa had the Blue Hens just where they wanted them, inside the UNI Dome in Cedar Falls for a quarterfinal duel, after a quarterfinal loss at Delaware in 2003 that followed a Newark snowstorm. As an ice storm raged outside, this game may not have been played if not for the indoor facility. The Panthers were unstoppable at the outset, jumping ahead 10-0 while Delaware had trouble in the noisy din. Then the Blue Hens became comfortable and found their stride. The defense buckled down and came up big with Erik Johnson’s 55-yard fumble return for a touchdown and Matt Marcorelle’s strip and fumble recovery that set up Striefsky’s 46-yard field goal. Delaware secured the win on Flacco’s 1-yard keeper for a touchdown with :41 left. The 10-play, 55-yard drive featured an 11-yard pass to Omar Cuff on third-and-11 and 33-yard pass to Michaud.

In 1993, red-shirt freshman quarterback Leo Hamlett entered the game in the second half and led Delaware to a win over Montana.
In 1993, red-shirt freshman quarterback Leo Hamlett entered the game in the second half and led Delaware to a win over Montana.

Nov. 27, 1993 – Delaware 49, Montana 48

On an ice-cold afternoon at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula, Delaware eked out a win in what remains the only meeting ever between the two I-AA/FCS powers. Montana was second among four seeds in the 16-team field. Red-shirt freshman quarterback Leo Hamlett, who replaced starter Keith Langan in the second half, zipped a 32-yard touchdown pass to Keita Malloy with 55 seconds left and Steve Leo kicked the decisive PAT. The Big Sky champions had just gone ahead 48-42 on Damon Boddie’s 80-yard kickoff return after Delaware tied the game 42-42 following Lanue Johnson’s 72-yard TD run. But the PAT try sailed wide right and that ended up being the difference in a game that was tied six times. Daryl Brown rushed for 188 yards and two TDs while passing Chuck Hall as Delaware’s all-time leading rusher and Johnson had 163 ground yards. “Sometimes it was hard just knowing who had the ball,” one Montana cornerback said, a familiar lament for those trying to defend the Delaware Wing-T for the first time. Delaware had to deal with Montana quarterback Dave Dickenson, who threw for 409 of his team’s 493 total yards.

Dec. 5, 1992 – Delaware 41, Northeast Louisiana 18

Northeast Louisiana was the No. 1 seed among four on the 16-team bracket. The Southland Conference champions had won nine straight and welcomed the Yankee Conference champion Blue Hens to Malone Stadium in Monroe for the quarterfinal matchup. The Blue Hens were not very deferential guests. They outgained the hosts 462-353 and feasted on seven Northeast Louisiana turnovers, including safety Brian Quigg’s 37-yard first-half interception runback for a touchdown, in a stunningly one-sided defeat. Northeast Louisiana had averaged 48 points its previous eight games and scored 78 the previous week. They jumped ahead 7-0 before the Hens took over. Daryl Brown rushed for 93 yards, including a 42-yard TD, and Billy Vergantino threw for 86 yards and ran for 51.

Running back Danny Reeder rushed for over 100 yards in a 1982 victory over Louisiana Tech.
Running back Danny Reeder rushed for over 100 yards in a 1982 victory over Louisiana Tech.

Dec. 11, 1982 – Delaware 17, Louisiana Tech 0

Southland Conference champion Louisiana Tech was the No. 2 seed in what was then a 12-team bracket and had stomped South Carolina State in the quarterfinals 38-3. No. 3-seed Delaware had eked out a 20-13 win over Colgate and appeared potentially overmatched. But in a game played in chilly temperatures and steady rain, leaving the field sloppy in Ruston, Louisiana, Delaware used the elements to its advantage. Its ball-control attack featured Danny Reeder’s 114 yards on 22 carries. Rick Scully threw just eight passes, but his six completions netted 101 yards. Lou Reda’s blocked punt put Delaware in position for a first-period TD, Scully’s 1-yard keeper. It stayed 7-0 until the fourth quarter before Kevin Phelan’s 2-yard TD run and K.C. Knobloch’s 31-yard field goal, set up by Jim Pawloski’s interception, Delaware’s third of the game. “I thought the kids took it to Tech,” coach Tubby Raymond said after Delaware limited the hosts to 285 yards, including 46 on the ground.

Have an idea for a compelling local sports story or is there an issue that needs public scrutiny? Contact Kevin Tresolini at ktresolini@delawareonline.com and follow on Twitter @kevintresolini. Support local journalism by subscribing to delawareonline.com

This article originally appeared on Delaware News Journal: Delaware's history full of playoff upsets, can they do it again?