The Road To Chattanooga: Delaware

  • Massachusetts head coach Mark Whipple during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game against Akron in Foxborough, Mass., Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015. Matt Vautour

Published: 9/4/2018 11:03:44 AM

Let’s hop in the time machine and go back 20 years to see how UMass was doing on its road to the only national championship in program history. We begin with Week 1, a 33-30 loss at Delaware on Sept. 3, 1998. 

Todd Bankhead threw for four touchdowns and 323 yards in the loss while Marcel Shipp picked up just 73 yards on 17 carries. Khari Samuel made 14 tackles to lead the UMass defense, which held the Blue Hens to 372 yards.

I’m going to try to find one story each week that highlights the Gazette’s coverage of the 1998 championship run, and this game preview story which ran in the Sept. 3 edition has a little irony in it.

The football schedule on the University of Delaware Web site includes a Dec. 19th game in Chattanooga, Tenn. - site of the NCAA Division 1-AA National Championship.

At most schools, including such a game on the schedule in August would be a pipe dream, but at Delaware, advancing deep into the playoffs is expected.

Adding credibility to those expectations is the fact that the Blue Hens advanced to within one game of that title game last year, where they were narrowly defeated by McNeese State, 23-21. The Hens are currently ranked No. 3 in the preseason Division 1-AA poll.

So when the University of Massachusetts arrives tonight (7 p.m.) at a likely packed Delaware Stadium, fans will be expecting a night to commemorate last year's team and to celebrate a big win over a Minuteman team that finished 2-9 a year ago. They likely won't be expecting a challenge from a team that the Hens defeated 40-9 in 1997.

New UMass coach Mark Whipple has other ideas. Throughout the preseason, he has asserted that not only can his team beat Delaware, but that it expects to do so.

"For this time of year, I feel that if we play to our capabilities, we'll have a very good chance to win the game," Whipple said, echoing the confidence he's displayed throughout preseason. "We're healthy. We're getting our legs back. The attitude is where I hoped it would be. The kids are confident. They feel good about the schemes and they feel good about their ability. It just comes down to execution."

Delaware's inability to scout UMass players in Whipple's system has made the Minutemen difficult to prepare for, a factor Whipple hopes to capitalize on.

"I think that is an advantage we have. They don't know what we're going to do," Whipple said. "We certainly would like to make some plays on both sides of the ball in the first quarter. I think that would really set us in motion toward an effective outcome."

Whipple has tried some creative tactics to try to help his team prepare for the anticipated noise of the Blue Hen crowd, including bringing in the marching band to play during practice.

"We're going to try to use the atmosphere to our advantage," Whipple said. "We're trying to get some noise out here. There's little things communication-wise you have to settle in on. But until you play in it..."

It may only be the season opener, but Delaware coach Tubby Raymond is in mid-season form when it comes to downplaying his team, especially regarding his club's No. 3 status.

"That only stems from what happened last year," he said. "It doesn't really have a great reflection on the current year."

Raymond also expressed considerable trepidation about facing the Minutemen.

"This will be a very difficult opener for us to prepare for defensively," Raymond said. "We've seen some tapes of Brown and we're probably going to have to look at 27 different formations. We can't settle on any one thing. I'm concerned about everything. I have enough worries normally, but this is going to be a tough opener. We could really use another week of preparation."

Whipple chuckled at Raymond's remarks.

"I don't think he'd like to switch places with me," Whipple said.

Offensively, Delaware will feature its vaunted winged-T and an impressive group of running backs to implement it. Senior fullback Andre Thompson (810 yards in 1997) and sophomore Craig Cummings (708) both return after strong seasons last year and sophomore Derrick Downs has come on strong as the third back.

Behind center, Raymond opted for Brian Ginn over Matt Nagy in the preseason quarterback derby. But Raymond said he plans to use both of them.

Notes: This will be UMass' first midweek game since 1961, when a game against Maine was rescheduled due to a breakout of an intestinal virus ... With the first tackle he makes, UMass linebacker Khari Samuel will tie George Karelas and move into fourth place on the Minutemen's all-time tackles chart. Wide receiver Steve Ley might not play tonight due to a nagging back injury.

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