NEWARK, Del. - Andrew Pierce shakes his head and offers a wan smile when the topic of The Fumble is raised.

"I had the game in my hands," said the Delaware standout running back, a freshman from Cumberland Regional High School. "It stuck with me for a while because we really wanted to win that game. I really want that game back."

The fumble that sent Pierce into a funk came in the regular-season finale against rival Villanova. He was 2 yards from the goal line, 2 yards from a touchdown that would have continued a riveting overtime duel. But the ball was popped loose, 'Nova recovered, and the Blue Hens, ranked No. 1 in the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision, went down to a 28-21 defeat.

Pierce had been hoping to get another crack at Villanova, which lost to Eastern Washington in Friday's semifinal, but the first order of business is Saturday at noon at Delaware Stadium when the fifth-ranked Blue Hens (11-2) go against No. 20 Georgia Southern (10-4) in a semifinal.

Georgia Southern is coached by Jeff Monken, who served five years as an assistant to Paul Johnson and has continued to run the triple-option offense that Johnson employed with success at Navy. The Eagles have won seven of their last eight games, five wins coming on the road.

As he lingered in limbo the final days of his senior year at Cumberland Regional, Pierce, who was raised in Bridgeton, could not have imagined being part of Delaware's playoff run. Despite rushing for 4,537 yards and winning awards from the Maxwell Club and Touchdown Club of South Jersey, he received only tepid interest from James Madison and a proposition from Delaware.

"For a while I thought I wasn't going to get a chance to play anywhere," said the 19-year-old.

In the spring of 2009, Pierce, a track and field standout at Cumberland, won a South Jersey sectional title in the javelin and finished fifth in the event in the Penn Relays. At the time, he was approached by Delaware assistant coach Frank Law. Then Blue Hens head coach K.C. Keeler offered him a chance to walk on at Delaware. He could enroll for the spring semester and take part in spring practice, but only after he completed some courses at Salem Community College.

"I really didn't know where it was going to go, but I thought I'd give it a try," he said.

Pierce did what he had to do and won the starting job at running back. It's easy to see why the Blue Hens might not still be playing if not for the earnest 5-foot-11, 196-pounder. He set university rushing standards for a freshman with 1,327 yards and 13 touchdowns. He also has three TD catches. What he doesn't have is a scholarship, but he said he's been told he will get one for his sophomore year.

Delaware's star quarterback, senior Pat Devlin, credits Pierce for some of his success.

"He's a really hard worker, and he's fun to be around," Devlin said. "You can't ask for much more from a running back. Whether it's running the ball, or pass protection, or getting out and catching the ball, he's a real rock out there. He's been just absolutely great. We were looking for a back to fit the role we needed, and A.P. just stepped up and filled a lot of those needs."

Pierce said that after he fumbled away the Villanova game, his teammates eased the heartache by offering him nothing but encouragement.

"A lot of the guys told me they wouldn't have wanted the ball in anyone else's hands," he said. "That meant a lot to me."

Georgia Southern at Delaware

NCAA Football Championship Subdivision semifinal

Saturday at noon, Delaware Stadium, Newark, Del.

TV/radio: ESPNU/WVUD-FM (91.3)

Records: Delaware, 11-2, ranked No. 5 nationally;

Georgia Southern, 10-4, ranked No. 20 nationally.

Coaches: Delaware, K.C. Keeler (ninth season, 73-41); Georgia Southern, Jeff Monken (first season, 10-4).

Series: Tied, 2-2.

Delaware update: The Blue Hens defeated Lehigh and New Hampshire to reach the semis, while the Eagles beat William and Mary and Wofford. Delaware's varied offense is based around the passing of QB Pat Devlin and the running of freshman Andrew Pierce, but it's the Blue Hens' sturdy defense that will hold the key to the game. The Eagles will employ their triple-option offense to test a defense that leads the FCS by allowing only 11.6 points per game. Delaware has not faced a triple-option attack this season. Led by Robert Brown (955 yards), Georgia Southern has five rushers who have combined for 2,700 yards and 34 TDs. The Eagles average fewer than 10 passes a game.

- Ray Parrillo

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Contact staff writer Ray Parrillo at 215-854-2743 or rparrillo@phillynews.com.