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The Lafayette

The Oldest College Newspaper in Pennsylvania

The Lafayette

The Oldest College Newspaper in Pennsylvania

The Lafayette

Football falls to Delaware in nail-biter in first round of FCS playoffs

Sophomore running back Jamar Curtis runs past a Delaware defender. (Photo by Rick Smith for GoLeopards)

In its first postseason action since 2013, the football team (9-3 overall, 5-1 Patriot League) fell to 11th-ranked Delaware in the first round of the NCAA FCS playoffs by a score of 36-34 on Saturday. The loss put an end to the Leopards’ historic 2023 season that resulted in a Patriot League Championship title.

Despite the Blue Hens entering the game favored by a touchdown, confidence among the Leopards was high according to sophomore running back Jamar Curtis.

“We knew we were blessed to be playing football during Thanksgiving weekend,” Curtis said. “A lot of our players aren’t used to playing football this late in the season, but we all knew we had something bigger at stake.”

The Maroon and White offense exploded out of the gate to start the game. Sophomore quarterback Dean DeNobile connected with Curtis for a 16-yard touchdown pass on the opening possession, capping off a six-play, 58-yard drive.

Delaware responded immediately with an 88-yard kick return, setting itself up on the Lafayette 2-yard line and tying the game at 7-7 two plays later. After a Lafayette punt, the Blue Hens once again held possession around midfield. The Leopard defense then forced the first turnover of the day as sophomore defensive back Taylor Smallwood came up with his second interception of the season. The pick set up a 75-yard touchdown drive as Curtis found the end zone for his second score of the day on a 19-yard run.

The team continued to pile on in the first quarter as senior linebacker Billy Shaeffer forced a Delaware fumble near midfield which was recovered by the Leopards. It took just one play for DeNobile to find the end zone on a 53-yard strike to sophomore wide receiver Elijah Steward, giving the Leopards a 21-7 advantage. On the next play from scrimmage, the Maroon and White defense forced its third turnover of the game when senior defensive back Neriyan Brown came up with an interception in Delaware territory. Three plays later, Curtis scored from two yards out, extending the lead to 28-7.

“It was all about turnovers,” head coach John Troxell said regarding the team’s first-half successes. “We forced four turnovers and they led to scores, which allowed us to stay in the fight.”

The Leopards closed out the first half with a 28-13 lead following a late Blue Hen touchdown. On their second possession of the second half, DeNobile ran for six yards to pick up a first down. However, he was injured on the play and was replaced by sophomore Ryan Schuster for the remainder of the game. This marked a turning point in the game as Lafayette’s offense stalled on the next three drives which ended in two punts twice and a lost fumble. Meanwhile, Delaware’s offense found the end zone on three consecutive drives, giving them a 33-28 lead with 12 minutes left in the game. Troxell blamed the team’s second-half struggles on its turnovers.

“We turned it over three times in the second half, and that gave them life,” Troxell said. “It gave them the chance to score quickly, which was our biggest factor in not winning the game.”

“They started sending more pressure,” Curtis said of Delaware’s second-half adjustments. “They took away the run more, and we couldn’t adjust to that.”

The Leopards refused to go down without a fight. Junior quarterback Ah-Shaun Davis, who came in the game for Schuster on the next possession, led a 75-yard drive that lasted nearly five minutes. Curtis scored on a 1-yard run for his fourth touchdown of the game, tying a Patriot League FCS Playoff record. A failed two-point conversion kept the Leopards’ lead to only one point at 34-33.

The Maroon and White defense failed to get a stop on the next drive as the Blue Hens marched down the field to kick a go-ahead field goal with 1:37 remaining in the game. The Leopards got the ball back once more in hopes of a last-minute miracle but were quickly stopped following a Curtis fumble around midfield to seal the game.

Despite the loss, Troxell said that he considers the Leopards’ 2023 season to be a major success and that the team did “magical things.”

“We had grit and constantly got better every week,” Troxell said. “From week one all the way through, we played great complementary football. The culture of our team was also critical. It was a ‘play for each other’ environment and that helped us win.”

According to Troxell, the preparation for the 2024 season has already begun.

“We’ll have a target on our backs,” Troxell said. “It’ll come down to how hard we’re willing to work and get back to where we were.”

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Dan Sullivan
Dan Sullivan, Staff Sports Writer

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    Amos Han '14Dec 1, 2023 at 12:42 pm

    I live in Florida and had a great time following Lafayette Football on ESPN+ and flying to a few games in person. During the first round game I was very unhappy when I saw that Dean Denobile got injured, as he was a very good quarterback. Overall a great season but this loss was a waste. I really wanted to see Lafayette advance to the second round and head to Missoula. On the bright side, two of Delaware coaches are familiar faces as they are former Lafayette coaches, and they’ll be there. Overall I was very impressed with the season. Hoping for an injury-free (or minimal injuries at the maximum) 2024 season, with top players like Dean Denobile and Jamar Curtis having full playing time during games. Also I regretted deciding to fly back to Florida from New York on Saturday instead of Sunday morning in an attempt to beat the post-Thanksgiving travel rush. Otherwise I would have attended the game in person. Instead I had to watch on ESPN+ and deal with the annoying Burger King commercials, which made my blood pressure increase further when my mood was already bad seeing the team lose.