Jon Marks, Special to NCAA.com
NEWARK, Del. — Honestly, this really wasn’t part of Pat Devlin’s original game plan. How could it have been?
In 2006, the kid with the rifle arm from Downingtown, Pa., had all the recruiters drooling. He committed to Joe Paterno and Penn State, figuring the only way to have a shot playing for the national championship would be for the Nittany Lions to make the BCS title game.
Funny how things work out. On Friday night, Devlin will be playing in the biggest game of his life. After discovering that the thrill of Happy Valley and the Big Ten weren’t quite what he thought they’d be, the big game he’ll be playing is an FCS quarterfinal. Devlin will be playing for No. 3 Delaware (10-2), which plays host to New Hampshire (8-4). The winner advances to the semifinals and a shot at the Georgia Southern-Wofford winner.
But that’s getting ahead of things, which is one thing Devlin won’t do. “Our mantra the whole year has been ’1-0′,” Devlin said while taking a break between studying for two finals after throwing for 256 yards and four touchdowns in Delaware’s 42-20 first-round win against Lehigh. “When you think about championships, that’s great. But that’s not really our focus. Our focus is going 1-0.”
Clearly, Joe Pa taught Devlin well during the three tumultuous years the 6-foot-4, 222-pound quarterback spent with the Nittany Lions. But after red-shirting, then lagging behind in the depth charts, playing sparingly and seeing little hope for the future, Devlin decided his best move was to look elsewhere.
He’s grateful Casey Keeler and the Blue Hens were willing to take him.”I don’t regret anything about my college experience,” said Devlin, who’s thrown for 2,414 yards, 18 touchdowns and just two interceptions for the Hens. “I treasure the times I was at Penn State as well as Delaware.
“I’m just so lucky coach Keeler and Delaware gave me a second chance. It’s been great for me. I always wanted to go to a school that played for championships; whether it be national or conference championships.”
Or maybe it was Delaware that was lucky. Devlin’s numbers are good enough that he has a good shot to follow Delaware grads Scott Brunner, Rich Gannon and Joe Flacco into the NFL.
But first, his team will have to dispatch the Wildcats, FCS leaders in turnovers (34, including 23 INTs) and sacks (33).
“I think they really run around to the ball,” said Devlin, whose biggest concerns are safety Dino Vasso (six INTs) and linebacker Matt Evans (145 tackles), while defensive end Brian McNally’s 11.5 sacks leads the FCS. “When it’s in the air they take the mindset they want to win it.
“We have to be ourselves and stick to what got us here. We’ve been successful running the ball all year long. We need to be able to run the ball and I think running can set up the pass.”
Certainly UNH coach Sean McDonnell, in his 12th season with the team, is wary of what Devlin, along with freshman running back Andrew Pierce (1,237 yards, 13 TDs) and Delaware’s fleet of receivers can do.
“He’s tremendous with the ball in his hands,” said McDonnell, whose club has won six of its past seven games, including last week’s 45-20 romp against Bethune-Cookman. “He makes their offense go not only with the passing game but the running game.
“He makes great decisions and they’ve done a great job with him. He’s got a great presence in the huddle and the strongest arm in the league. Plus he’s got really good receivers.”
But don’t look for the Wildcats to back down — even though they won’t know until game time whether quarterback R.J. Toman will play. Toman has a tender ankle that forced him to miss the Bethune Cookman game in favor of Kevin Decker.
“This is an exciting opportunity, to face one of the top teams in the country,” said McDonnell, New England’s FCS Coach of the Year, who’s won his past three games against Delaware. “Our defense prides itself and I’m sure the antennae have got to be up.
“They’ve got to have the answers before they take the test.”
Meanwhile, Devlin, who once steered Penn State past Ohio State and is now a top-10 finalist for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, can’t wait to step onto the field with all the chips on the line.
“I’m really having a great time with the playoff system,” said Devlin. “It’s your season. Lose, you’re out.”
Win, though, and the pressure, the excitement, the stakes, only intensify.
No, Devlin didn’t plan it this way. But right now he couldn’t ask for more.