Change of pace needed
DURHAM - When the FCS Wildcats moved up a weight class last year, they were ambushed by the speed of FBS Toledo. New Hampshire gave up the first 27 points and spent the rest of the night chasing the Rockets in an eventual 58-22 loss. So even though UNH looked good in its season-opening 38-17 win last week at Holy Cross, the 'Cats know tomorrow's game at Minnesota will have a very different feel.
'The thing that's going to change I think is pace of play,' UNH Coach Sean McDonnell said. 'I think (Minnesota) is going to play pretty fast. That really knocked us down at the Toldeo game last year. There was a little bit of weather, but they played fast and we didn't. We're going to have to be ready for something like that on Saturday.'
The Toledo game was the first of UNH's 2011 season, so adjusting to that FBS pace should be easier for the Wildcats this year since they've already gotten a taste of live action. That's especially true for redshirt freshman quarterback Sean Goldrich, who took his first collegiate snaps last week.
'I definitely feel much more comfortable now going into this game than I was last game,' said Goldrich, who threw for 193 yards against the Crusaders and had a team-high 71 rushing yards. 'You didn't really know what to expect and I felt good about how we performed as a team and I think we have a little bit of confidence going in to play Minnesota.'
Of course having a big win in the books didn't help UNH in 2010 when it beat Central Connecticut State in the opener, 33-3, then lost at FBS Pittsburgh the next week, 38-16. But this Minnesota team, coming off back-to-back 3-9 seasons, isn't at the same level as Toledo (9-4 last year with a bowl win) or Pitt (a Top 25 team in 2010).
Yes, the Gophers have an imposing quarterback in 6-foot-4, 250-pound MarQueis Gray, who weighs more than both of UNH's starting linebackers, captains Matt Evans (228) and Alan Buzbee (235). Yes, the Minnesota offensive line averages 302.4 pounds (compared to the 274.8 for Holy Cross) and both of their running backs, Donnell Kirkwood and James Gillum, might be stars if they played in the FCS.
But this is not a mismatch for New Hampshire.
'You have an opportunity to possibly win a football game,' McDonnell said. 'Those are the things you look at when you go into these kinds of games.'
And those are the kinds of words McDonnell used both before and after UNH won five straight games against FBS opponents from 2004-09 - Rutgers (35-24 in '04), Northwestern (34-17 in '06), Marshall (48-35 in '07), Army (28-10 in '08) and Ball State (23-16 in '09). The Wildcats felt like they had a chance in those games because all of those teams were average to below average FBS teams, and Minnesota is probably at that level as well.
The Gophers were picked to finish last in the Big 10's Legends Division by most experts. They don't have a single player on the Senior Bowl Watch List (there's 46 total from the Big 10, and even one from UNH, defensive tackle Jared Smith). Their strength is supposed to be on offense, but they scored only 13 points in regulation last week against UNLV, which allowed 40.4 points per game in 2011. They needed three overtimes to beat the Runnin' Rebels, 30-27, a team that went 2-10 last year and 2-11 in 2010. And last year Minnesota lost its one game against an FCS opponent, falling at home to eventual FCS champion North Dakota State, 37-24.
The opportunity does seem to be there for the Wildcats - now they just have to do it. That process will surely include keeping Gray contained and forcing him to pass. The senior quarterback led the team in rushing last year with 966 yards on 199 carries, but he completed only 50.7 percent of his passes for 1,495 yards and threw just as many interceptions as touchdowns (eight).
'Throwing is probably his weakness,' UNH junior defensive end Jimmy Vailas said. 'He's not a bad passer, but he's a better runner, so we've got to stop him running the ball.'
On the other side, the Wildcats may have to move the ball through the air. Minnesota has a trio of run-stopping linebackers in seniors Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper and junior Aaron Hill and a powerful nose tackle in Ra'shede Hageman (6-6, 301). But last year the Gophers allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 67.7 percent of their passes and had only four interceptions as a team.
Relying heavily on the passing game will put pressure on the young Goldrich, but UNH's talented group of receivers (R.J. Harris, Joey Orlando, Justin Mello and Jimmy Giansante) will help, as Goldrich learned against Holy Cross.
'I saw just how much talent we have. I never got to go into battle with these guys on the field, and as soon as I did, I saw the talent that we had,' Goldrich said. 'It was definitely a good feeling.'
(Tim O'Sullivan can be reached at 369-3371 or email@example.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)