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Wildcats finally ready for home opener

They prepare for Holy Cross (2-1)

DURHAM - They've traveled nearly 1,800 miles in the last month, bouncing from Ohio to Pennsylvania to Virginia. They've played at the Glass Bowl, Goodman Stadium and Robins Stadium. But now, finally, the Wildcats return home.

A quirky schedule put the University of New Hampshire football team on the road for its first three games and then mixed in a bye week, which means that tomorrow's noon-time game against Holy Cross at Cowell Stadium is actually the home opener. On Oct. 1. The same day the hockey team opens its preseason schedule across the street at the Whittemore Center. It's the latest home opener since 1989, when the 'Cats didn't play in Durham until Oct. 14.

'It's weird having our first home game in October,' UNH quarterback Kevin Decker said, 'but it's exciting at the same time.'

The Wildcats performed well on their extended opening road trip, going 2-1 and upping their national ranking from No. 10 to No. 7. After getting blown out in Week 1 by Toledo, 58-22, UNH rebounded with close wins at Lehigh and Richmond as Decker threw for a combined 569 yards and five touchdowns and the 'Cats put up 98 points. Two of the touchdowns came from the defense, but that unit is also allowing an average of 521 yards per game.

'I'm happy to be 2-1 and ... pleased that our guys had enough poise and resiliency to go on the road and win those games,' UNH Coach Sean

McDonnell said. 'I'm still not pleased with the fact that I think we're not where we need to be as a football team. ... I would like to see better growth on the defensive side of the ball, we haven't seen it yet. I don't think we took care of the ball as well as we should have last week against Richmond (two interceptions) and our coverage on the kickoff team (34.1 yards allowed per return) was extremely disappointing.'

The Wildcats are well aware of the work that needs to be done. They're just happy they get to do it at home.

'Finally we're back in the dungeon, back to where it all started,' senior defensive end James Jenkins said, using the Wildcats nickname for Cowell. 'We're all pretty excited to be home for the first game.'

The facilities at UNH may be in need of an upgrade (there's a reason they call it the dungeon), but the players do have a genuine fondness for Cowell and, of course, the home crowd. If the 'Cats can capitalize on that home-field advantage in the coming weeks (they play four of the next six games in Durham), they might get a playoff game at the dungeon.

'We talk about it. If we protect our home turf we'll be all right this season,' Decker said. 'We have some challenging games, but if we win those remaining games at home we should be all right later in the year.'

'The kids are thrilled. We've been a long way from here,' McDonnell said. 'We haven't been home to play a game in a long time and it's an opportunity for them to play in front of our home fans, in front of our students, in front of people who really appreciate what they're doing, and there's something to be said about that.'

Lead Crusaders

The 'Cats will be favored against Holy Cross, which plays in the non-scholarship Patriot League, but the Crusaders (2-1) are not some sacrificial opponent brought in for the home opener. Quarterback Ryan Taggart is 58-for-95 for 789 yards and four touchdowns so far this season. The 6-foot-2, 214-pound senior hasn't thrown an interception since the last time he played a game in New Hampshire - at Dartmouth College on Oct. 16, 2010. That's a span of seven games and 201 passes.

'(Taggart) knows where he wants to go with the ball and he does a great job reading coverages,' McDonnell said.

The Holy Cross defense is giving up just 17.7 points per game, the 12th best total in the Football Championship Subdivision. The Crusaders use multiple fronts and zone blitzes and are powered by a trio of senior linebackers - Ricky Otis (6-1, 220), C.J. Martin (5-11, 218) and Jimmy Thomas (6-3, 223).

'They do a lot of different things with odd fronts, which we don't see a lot,' Decker said. 'It's going to be a challenge preparing for them, but we're looking forward to it.'

Cross connections

Holy Cross junior running back Sam Auffant is no stranger to New Hampshire. Auffant is a Hampton native who played at Winnacunnet for Coach Ron Auffant, his father.

'Sammy Auffant, we had him in camps three or four years ourselves, he's a heck of a football player,' McDonnell said. 'He's a backup running back for (Holy Cross) and on a bunch of special teams for them and his dad does a heck of a job with the Winnacunnet program.'

There's also a link between McDonnell and Holy Cross Head Coach Tom Gilmore, as well as linebackers coach Tom Radulski (a 1979 UNH grad). All three of them were defensive coaches at Columbia in 1989 - Radulski was the defensive coordinator while Gilmore worked with the defensive line and McDonnell the linebackers.

'All three of us know each other pretty well and I do know this, that, one, Tom Gilmore is an unbelievable competitor and he gets his kids to play,' McDonnell said. 'And two, he's really, really smart. He's an intelligent, hard-working guy and I think he's done an unbelievable job with the Holy Cross program.'

Injury update

McDonnell said redshirt freshman R.J. Harris was 'banged up a little bit,' after catching 12 passes for 120 yards and two touchdowns against Richmond. The same goes for redshirt freshman safety Tre Williams, but McDonnell expects both to play against Holy Cross and no Wildcats were seriously hurt against the Spiders.

McDonnell also said senior receiver Mickey Mangieri will likely play tomorrow after missing the first three games with a concussion. Junior defensive back Tyler Sargent seems to be over his hamstring injury and should also see his first action of the year, which will bolster the secondary and special teams.

Junior quarterback James Brady is still be troubled by a shoulder problem, which means Andy Vailas, a redshirt freshman from Bedford, will likely get the call if Decker needs a back up.

And a number thing ...

McDonnell was pleased with the improvement in UNH's running game against Richmond. The Wildcats gained 129 yards on 25 carries for a 5.2 yards per carry average, their best of the season so far. Junior back Dontra Peters earned individual praise from McDonnell after gaining 64 yards on nine carries last week, in addition to his 141 kickoff return yards (28.2 yards per return avearge). Peters leads the team with 128 rushing yards and leads the Colonial Athletic Association in all-purpose yards (212 per game).

Decker is second on the team with 121 yards rushing, and his legs helped him earn last week's FCS Golden Helmet Award from the Gridiron Club of Greater Boston. The quarterback had nine carries for 48 yards and two touchdowns to go along with his passing stats (22-for-32, 239 yards, two touchdowns).

UNH junior linebacker Matt Evans is back in a familiar place - at the top of the national and league tackling lists. Evans is averaging 17.33 tackles per game, easily the best in the country and the CAA. Montana's Caleb McSurdy is second in the FCS with 13.25 tackles per game and New Hampshire sophomore safety Chris Beranger is second in the CAA with 12.0 tackles per game.

Karim brothers benefit

Tomorrow's game will be dedicated to former UNH football players Muji and Husain Karim, who were critically injured in a car crash in Boston last month. Husain transferred to UNH from Holy Cross and led the Wildcats in tackles in 2006 (108) and 2007 (130). Muji, a safety, was a four-year letter winner and won the UNH 12th Player Award in 2006.

Other former UNH athletes, including receiver David Ball, will be on hand to spearhead a fund raising effort for the Karim Brother's Recovery Fund.

'These recent circumstances brought back a lot of memories of my time at UNH and the lessons we learned as teammates,' Ball said. 'You hear all the time that members of a football team are like a brotherhood, but rarely do people get the opportunity to experience that firsthand like we did. Husain and Muji are our brothers, and it is going to be an unbelievable experience to honor and pay tribute to them during their time of need while the two schools they represented go head-to-head.'

(Tim O'Sullivan can be reached at 369-3371 or

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