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Wilmington Snooze-Terminal, November 23, 2009
Washington Denies Cherries’ Bid to Repeat, 21-20
Last-Minute Ward TD Catch Erases Remainder of 17-Point Halftime Lead
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by Rip Snorter
The Delaware Cherries’ reign as EFL champions abruptly ended yesterday on their home turf one day shy of a full year. The Washington Capitols seized the 2009 crown, 21‑20, on a 4-yard, 4th down pass from Trent Edwards to Hines Ward with 0:45 remaining.

Whereas in 2008 the Cherries (11‑5) came back from a 17‑0 halftime deficit to be beat Connecticut, yesterday they surrendered a 17‑0 halftime lead to lose to the Capitols (11‑5). Ward’s winning touchdown capped an epic 16-play drive that began on the Washington 20 with 5:02 left.

Rip Snorter

Caps Toast, Cherries Lament Freakish Flip of 2008 Script

This piece practically wrote itself.

I mean there isn’t a football columnist on the planet that wouldn’t seize upon the same theme in analyzing the inexplicable, yet inevitable scenario that played out yesterday morning at Delaware Stadium.

Spirits were high in the stands as the Cherries played a practically perfect first half — a 16‑3 edge in first downs, 247‑56 edge in total yards, and an 11-minute advantage in time of possession — in racing to a 17‑0 lead. Over that half and the last 30 minutes of their semi-final win, the Cherries had outscored playoff-caliber opposition 31‑0. They seemed, frankly, invincible. That 2nd straight championship was just a matter of time.

And yet you felt a ripple of apprehension as you waited for the 3rd quarter to start. It was that score — 17‑0. Seventeen-to-nothing. Wasn’t that the halftime score by which the Cherries trailed Connecticut in the championship game last year? Yes, indeed it was. And we all remember fondly how the Comets disintegrated and coughed up the lead to Delaware.

Surely that scenario wouldn’t be stood on its head by the football gods. That would be cruel on their part. And besides, Hollywood would never buy it.

So you did your best to dismiss the thought, thinking the Cherries would continue to assert their dominance.

But when the Caps drove for a touchdown following the 2nd half kickoff, just as the Cherries had last year, your gut tightened a little.

And when the Cherries responded with a John Kasay field goal on their first 2nd half possession, mirroring tthe Comets’ response last year, you somehow weren’t comforted by the extension of the lead to 20‑7. Instead you started to get a little spooked.

“It is happening again.”

When the 3rd quarter ended with the lead still at 13, you just couldn’t shake the thought that the football gods had the dial on their irony generator turned up to 11. You tried to rationalize, telling yourself if the Cherries couldn’t hold a 13-point lead with one quarter to go, they wouldn’t deserve to retain the title.

At this point I’ll stop writing your thoughts — I’m not a mind-reader, after all — and stick to my own.

I became convinced the Cherries were going to lose when Fred Robbins deflected Philip Rivers’ throw toward the left flat right into the hands of Antonio Pierce, and Pierce romped 26 yards untouched for a pick six to make it 20‑14 with 8:24 to go. That was relatively close to the point in the game last year that the Cherries got a pivotal score on a play not initiated by their offense: a 72-yard punt return by Dante Hall.

Yep, when Pierce approached the Delaware end zone, I knew. I just knew. And it felt awful.

The only unknown at that point would be just how cruel the football gods would make the end-game scenario. Plenty cruel as it turned out.

Washington’s drive for the winning touchdown seemed to take an eternity. The fans cajoled the defense, that vaunted Delaware defense, to make a stop. But the Caps’ march was pre-ordained. With 2:16 left, Edwards connected with veteran Hines Ward for 11 yards on 4th and 2. The fans pleaded to the defense. And still the Caps kept coming.

With devilish delight the football gods made it seem like the Cherries would finally halt Washington’s progress in the nick of time with only a few yards to spare.

But sadly, no.

On 4th and goal at the 4, when Ward emerged from heavy traffic to shake Lito Sheppard and snag Trent Edwards’ bullet of a pass, the noise level in Delaware Stadium dropped from utter bedlam to deathly quiet in the space of less than a second. It was like the ground beneath gave way and swallowed the stands in a single gulp.

Those fans who climbed out to watch Mason Crosby nail the title-winning extra point stood in shock. The football gods smugly smiled and straightened the papers of their now completely flipped script with satisfaction.

Washington coach Clint Hillary, one of the more astute observers of EFL history, used his memory of the 2008 championship game, which didn’t involve his team, to motivate his Caps players at halftime. “There wasn’t much point in analyzing what went wrong in the 1st half. Everything went wrong. I didn’t say much more to [my players] than, ‘hey guys, Delaware was behind 17‑0 [at halftime] last year, and they came back and won. Let’s give them a taste of their own medicine.’”

Hillary’s approach worked.

It took a long time for Delaware coach Jon Brams to emerge from the locker room for his post-game press conference. When he did he was ashen-faced. I, along with my colleagues in the 4th estate, knew to go easy on him.

Brams downplayed the possibility of awareness on his team’s part of the potential flipping of the 2008 script during halftime or as the flip unfolded. “Yes, sure I was aware [of the matching halftime scores], but it wasn’t anything any of us gave more than a passing thought to. You know you have to go out and keep doing the things that got you to that point. Obviously we didn’t. We didn’t let up. Nobody in that locker room did. But we could have played smarter. Those two personal fouls hurt [one on each of the Caps’ two touchdown drives, the first by Maake Kemoeatu and the second by LaMarr Woodley].

“Give credit to Clint and his team. They really kicked it up a couple of notches.

“Our fans deserved a better outcome today. They’re the best in the league bar none. Next season we’ll fight as hard as we can to bring a championship back to Delaware.”

I asked Brams if there was a coaching decision in the game he’d like to have back, but I already knew what his answer would be. “We should have gone for that 4th and 5 at the [Washington] 38 [with 5:22 left].” Going for it would have been in keeping with his coaching style during the regular season when the Cherries went for 1st downs in 36 4th down situations and converted 22, both EFL records.

“We were a little out of Kasay’s range,“ Brams continued. “I thought [punter] Jeff [Feagles] could pin [Washington] deep, the defense would hold them, and we would get the ball back and run out the clock.” Didn’t work out that way. Feagles’ punt was great. Brandon Jackson appeared to have a bead on it inside the 5, but it took a crazy bounce and — barely — skipped into the end zone for a touchback.

“If we had had 3 yards to go, we definitely would have gone for it … 4 yards, probably.” Brams sighed. “I wish we had gone for it. I really do.”

What happened on Ward’s touchdown? “I thought [Washington] would stay on the ground — go to [Adrian] Peterson. Or maybe try to cross us up and give it to [Le'Ron] McClain. I figured if they tried to go up top, our guys in the secondary would stick to [the receivers]. They did all year. We gave Edwards too much time to throw, partially because we were in a run-stopping alignment, and Ward finally found some space.

“Clint put his trust in Edwards and the guy came through for him. It was the kill blow. Hurt like hell.”

What more can be said? It wasn’t in the cards for the Cherries yesterday. The football gods flipped the script … ultimately they call the shots whether you believe in them or not. If I didn’t believe before, I do now.