Is listing Delaware State poised to stabilize with return of Justin Wilson?

Once upon a time, Delaware State was on a roll, winners of two in a row to open the 2011 season. That was then.

When wide receiver Justin Wilson, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference’s preseason player of the year, went down with a high-ankle sprain in Week 2, Delaware State lost most of its offense — and every game since. That four-game slide began with ugly losses against Delaware and South Carolina State by a combined 114-0. Next came a 34-7 pasting from Florida A&M, as the Wilson-less Delaware State put up just 377 total yards through next three games.

Delaware State coach Kermit Blount, in his first-year after a long stint at Winston-Salem State, remained upbeat: “This is a life lesson for these young men that I’m coaching,” he told St. Clair Murraine of the Tallahassee Democrat. “Life is never easy and it’s never always a good day or bad day. You just have to make the best of it. They’re not going to quit so we are going to deal with the bumps in the road.”

Even so, there was clearly something missing. And that thing might just have been Wilson: He returned last week, and though Delaware State (2-4, 0-3 MEAC) fell 38-21 to Norfolk State, Hornets quarterback Nick Elko connected for a career-high 339 yards. Wilson also set a career mark with 10 receptions, piling up 118 yards and a touchdown.

This team is, of course, far from back on track. After all, the Hornets lost in the end. Too, they are traveling this week to face a resurgent North Carolina A&T under first-year coach Rod Broadway, who has led the team to an undefeated start in league play that includes an impressive 22-3 win last week over reigning MEAC co-champion Bethune-Cookman.

The Bethune game, actually, wasn’t even as close as the score indicates, as A&T (3-2, 2-0) recovered three fumbles, intercepted a pass, recorded a safety and held the Wildcats to 5 yards rushing. North Carolina A&T hadn’t scored back-to-back conference wins since November 2003, and hadn’t beaten Bethune-Cookman in its last seven tries.

And, whatever Wilson is able to accomplish against those Aggies, Delaware State will simply have to get better on defense. Going into the FAMU game, this group had given up 11 touchdowns, including 10 on the ground, to fall to last in the 11-team MEAC. And we all know what happened next.

Still, Wilson’s return could be the rising tide that lifts all boats. After all, in one game, Delaware State put up 23 more passing yards than the Hornets had in consecutive losses to Delaware, South Carolina State and Florida A&M … combined.

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It’s been a wild ride, but Delaware State is going places under Kermit Blount

First-year head coach Kermit Blount is already turning heads, and setting records. First, Delaware State offed Big South Conference foe VMI 24-21, then bested lower-division Shaw — though that game was perhaps closer than it should have been.

Blount has now became the first Delaware State head coach to win his opening game since 1997, when John McKenzie’s squad topped Cheyney 50-18. Blount also ended a two-game losing streak for Delaware State in season openers, and halted VMI’s six-game win streak in opening dates. The Shaw victory, meanwhile, was the Hornets’ first night-game win at home since besting Florida A&M in 2008, a streak of four tries.

Delaware State — which only one three games last year, and just two in Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference play — is 2-0 for the first time since 2007.

Both games so far in 2011 have been thrillers, but the Hornets found a way to win. That’s a credit to Blount who, prior to arriving at Delaware State, spent 17 seasons at Winston-Salem State — where he won more games than any other coach at the school with a 91-87-3 record.

In the opener against the Virginia Military Institute, Nick Elko threw for 230 yards and three touchdowns, while preseason Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Player of the Year Justin Wilson had two scoring catches to lead Delaware State’s 346-yard offensive outburst. But it wasn’t over until Blount’s defense, which forced three turnovers, secured the win with a key fourth-down stop on VMI’s final fourth-quarter possession.

A week later, the Hornets faced a scrappy Shaw program that has captured three of the last four Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association championships. It took a game-winning Delaware State touchdown after a fumble in the last minute of the game to finish off Shaw, 31-27. Delaware State’s furious comeback included outscoring Shaw 22-3 over the final 15 minutes, capped by Elko’s 13-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Darius Jackson with just 35 seconds left.

Jackson got a chance to step up when Wilson was sidelined with a high ankle sprain, making 11 catches for 127 yards. But he had to overcome other obstacles, too: He sat in Week 1 at VMI, after Blount suspended Jackson for violating unspecified team rules. Elko, meanwhile, went 25-of-46 passes for 238 yards, but also had three picks — two of which led to touchdowns by Shaw, a winless Division II team.

To repeat the old football cliche, though, it doesn’t get any easier: Delaware State now must ready itself for a Route 1 rivalry game against the University of Delaware. The 1-1 Blue Hens marched all the way to the NCAA’s FCS Championship Game last January, before falling in an excruciating 20-19 loss to Eastern Washington.