The streak lives.
After pulling out a 24-21 win against rival Maine on Saturday, the University of New Hampshire football team was rewarded Sunday morning by getting an at-large bid to the 24-team Football Championship Subdivision tournament. It will be the 13th straight postseason for the Wildcats, the best run in the FCS.
“We don’t talk about it a lot, but it truly means the world to us to keep this streak going,” UNH senior captain and linebacker Ryan Farrell said.
New Hampshire will host Lehigh, the Patriot League champion, on Saturday at 2 p.m. in the first round. It’s a similar matchup to last year’s first round when the ’Cats hosted Colgate, the 2015 Patriot League champ. UNH had beaten Colgate in the regular-season, but lost the playoff game, 27-20.
“I was saying to the guys, you know what, last year we had the same situation, a Patriot League team coming to Durham," said senior running back Dalton Crossan, who ran for 163 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries in the regular-season finale against Maine. “I think personally that we kind of wrote them off, not like really we thought we were going to win 100 percent, but we were kind of looking (ahead) … Us seniors are going to make sure that is not the mindset going into this week.”
Those seniors are extremely relieved their class wasn’t the one that broke the playoff streak. That was in doubt until Sunday morning’s announcement because New Hampshire’s 7-4 record had left them precariously balanced on the playoff bubble.
“I literally think my heart skipped a beat,” Farrell said about seeing New Hampshire on the screen as the team watched the announcement show in its locker room. “I’m surprised I’m still breathing at this point.”
“The biggest thing is the kids and to see their reaction. You could feel it in that room when it hit, when that name went up on the board,” UNH Coach Sean McDonnell said. “Believe me, I feel the same way. You look around you see (senior Curtis) Nealer, you see (Concord’s Andrew) Lauderdale, you see Farrell, you see (senior captain Casey) DeAndrade, you see a freshman, Pop (Lacey). You see these guys just jumping right out of their chairs. They get to practice for another week. Get to play for another week and, more importantly, we get to play in the Dungeon one more time. It’s all good.”
New Hampshire finished tied for second in the Colonial Athletic Association with a 5-2 league record. The Wildcats are one of four CAA teams in the playoffs along with league-champion James Madison (10-1, 8-0 CAA), Villanova (8-3, 6-2) and Richmond (8-3, 5-3). Albany, which finished 7-4 (4-4 CAA) and beat UNH 36-25 on Nov. 12, did not get an invite.
Lehigh is a potent offensive team (40.5 points per game, 491.5 yards per game) led by quarterback Nick Shafnisky (2,448 passing yards, 66.2 completion percentage, 20 touchdowns, five interceptions). The Mountain Hawks lost their first two games of the season (23-21 to Monmouth and 26-21 to Villanova) before reeling off nine straight wins, six in the Patriot League, to finish 9-2 overall and 6-0 in conference.
“This is a Patriot League that has come into this place in playoff games and beaten us,” McDonnell said. “So the antennas are going to be up this week.”Extra points
UNH starting quarterback Trevor Knight had to leave the game against Maine in the first quarter after suffering an ankle injury. Senior Adam Riese came on in relief and went 20-for-37 for 218 yards, a touchdown and an interception. Knight’s status is still up in the air.
“Trevor’s got a sprained foot right now,” McDonnell said. “Going to get X-rays on it, haven’t got them yet. Going to be in a boot for a while and going to see what happens. Not really sure.”
If the Wildcats win, they’ll travel to No. 4 James Madison for a 2 p.m. second-round game on Dec. 3.
The top eight teams in the tournament get a first-round bye - No. 1 (and five-time champ) North Dakota State (10-1), No. 2 Eastern Washington (10-1), No. 3 Jacksonville State (10-1), No 4 JMU, No. 5 Sam Houston State, No. 6 The Citadel (10-1), No. 7 North Dakota (9-2) and No. 8 South Dakota State (8-3).
After Saturday’s performance, Crossan has 1,005 yards on the season. He becomes just the second 1,000-yard rusher for UNH during this string of playoff appearances. The other was Nico Steriti, who ran for 1,028 yards in 2013.