After battling to the end against a nationally-ranked Colonial Athletic Association opponent, the Blue Hens came up short once again as No. 20 Richmond (7-3, 5-2 CAA) held off Delaware for a 23-17 victory at Robins Stadium.
Delaware (5-5, 2-5 CAA) fell behind 20-7 at halftime but battled back and put itself in a position to win but couldn’t finish it off as Trent Hurley’s floating pass on the final play of the game was intercepted in the end zone by Richmond safety Connor Taylor.
The Hens had battled back thanks to a 77-yard interception return for a touchdown by senior Ricky Tunstall (at right) with 11:30 left to play and a 42-yard field goal by Sean Baner with 3:05 remaining.
Delaware had one last chance to pull out the win as the Hens gained possession at the 50-yard line with 30 seconds left. Hurley (at left) completed passes to Michael Johnson and Jerel Harrison to put the ball at the 27-yard line, but he came under pressure on fourth down and his floating pass into the end zone was picked off to end the game.
“It’s like deja vu all over again,” said Keeler, whose team lost its third straight close game, all against Top 20 opponents. “It’s been a rough three weeks. As I told the kids, we are Delaware and there are no moral victories. But I would be foolish not to mention the character of this team. There are so many ways we could have quit today but we kept on battling back. These kids have given us everything they’ve got and that bodes well for the future. This is definitely testing our character but I think we are passing the test.”
Over the last three weeks, the youthful and banged up Blue Hens have suffered losses of 31-26 to No. 6 ranked Old Dominion, 34-27 in overtime to No. 19 Towson, and 23-17 to No. 20 Richmond. Delaware’s current three-game winless streak is its longest since 2008.
“Any loss is tough,” said Tunstall, who also broke up two other passes on the day. “But we come to fight and we go out and just keep playing. Today they just made more plays.”
Richmond is one of the nation’s biggest turnaround stories under first-year head coach Danny Rocco after the Spiders went winless (0-8) in conference play a year. Richmond, which has won three straight games, moved one step closer to an almost certain NCAA Tournament berth with the win Saturday.
Spider quarterback Michael Strauss completed 25 of 41 passes for 267 passes while Kendall Gaskins ran for 83 yards and two touchdowns and kicker Remington Hinshaw booted field goals of 25, 37, and 23 yards. His 23-yarder with 6:09 left gave UR a 23-14 lead.
Turnovers were the downfall for the Hens as they committed a season-high five of them and also had a punt blocked. Hurley completed 23 of 44 passes for 265 yards but was intercepted four times. Julian Laing rushed for 56 yards and a touchdown and Nihja White (at right) caught seven passes for 88 yards.
Richmond, which entered the game ranked 12th in the nation in scoring at 35.7 point per game, was held to its lowest point total since a season-opening 43-19 loss to the University of Virginia. Both teams had 20 first downs and Richmond had 342 total yards, just seven more than Delaware. Richmond, which came into the game ranked No. 1 in the nation by allowing just one sack all season, was sacked three times by Delaware Saturday.
The Spiders jumped out to a quick 17-0 lead as they drove with ease on the first possession of the game, going 75 yards on 14 plays capped by a eight-yard run by Gaskins. A 53-yard return on an interception by Darryl Hamilton set up a 25-yard field by Hinshaw late in the first quarter for a 10-0 lead and Gaskins scored again, this time from six yards out, to give Richmond a 17-0 lead with 12:06 left in the half.
Delaware finally got on the board midway through the first half as the Hens marched 75 yards capped by Laing’s two-yard dive into the end zone with 8:52 left in the second quarter to cut the host’s lead to 17-7.
Turnovers killed chances for the Hens once again in the third quarter as Laing fumbled at the Richmond 18-yard line with 9:37 left in the third quarter with Taylor recovering. On their very next possession, Delaware was thwarted again as Hamilton picked off Hurley for the second time and the Spiders capitalized with Hinshaw converting a 37-yard field goal with 2:28 left in the stanza to push the lead to 20-7.
The Hens dodged a bullet to get back in the game as a punt by Rauley Zaragoza was blocked at the UD 19-yard line but a 37-yard field goal attempt by Hinshaw missed with 14:47 left to play. Richmond got the ball back but the Hens came up with their biggest play of the day as Tunstall stepped in front of a pass by Strauss and raced 77 yards down the left sideline for a touchdown to narrow the gap to 20-14 with 11:30 left.
The interception was the first thrown by Strauss all season and just the third by the Spiders the entire campaign. Tunstall scored his second touchdown off an interception this season and his third of his career, tying the UD record held by Kenny Bailey (1993-96) and former teammate Tyrone Grant (2007-10).
Richmond got some breathing room as Hinshaw kicked his third field goal of the game with 6:09 left on a 23-yarder. The kick was set up when Strauss hit tight end Ben Roller on a 25-yard pass down to the Hen seven-yard line on fourth down.
Baner’s 42-yard field goal with 3:05 left to play pulled Delaware to within 23-17 and the Blue Hen defense then stopped Richmond to set up the final drive that fell just short.
The Hens will look to wrap-up a winning season in the 2012 finale next Saturday when Delaware hosts rival Villanova at 3:30 p.m. at Delaware Stadium. Villanova, ranked No. 21 in the nation this past week, knocked off No. 9 James Madison 35-20 Saturday.