UNH looking forward to challenge of playing up a level in season opener against Toledo
PERRYSBURG, Ohio – Humidity hung over the Perrysburg High football field and the monotonous hum of traffic from I-75 droned in the background. But that did little to dent the enthusiasm of the University of New Hampshire football team as it went through a light practice yesterday in this Toledo, Ohio, suburb.
“You saw it out here today, we’re ready to get after it,” UNH senior receiver R.J. Harris said. “We’re looking forward to being able to hit other people for the first time. It’s been a long month and a half of preparation, so now we’re ready to get after it.”
The Wildcats, ranked No. 4 in the FCS preseason polls, will open their season tonight at 7 in The Glass Bowl against the University of Toledo, an FBS school that was picked to finish first in the Mid-American Conference West Division.
The players weren’t the only excited Wildcats in Perrysburg. Coach Sean McDonnell gave a short but spirited talk to the team at the end of practice.
“I said go enjoy this. You get this one opportunity a year to go play somebody that’s a level up from you, has got more scholarships and all these things,” McDonnell said. “Do the things that we’ve prepared for and go out and embrace it.”
UNH faced another MAC school, Central Michigan, in last year’s season opener. The ’Cats controlled that game until the fourth quarter when they let a 14-point lead slip away and lost, 24-21, on a last-second field goal.
“The kids seem like they’re ready, but this is always a funny thing in the opening game” McDonnell said. “Last year we came out of the gate and played very, very well for three quarters. So it’s like I told the team, ‘You’ve got to finish, men, you’ve got to finish.’ ”
From 2004-09, the Wildcats won five consecutive games against FBS opponents, but that roll has been reversed in recent years and they’ve now lost four straight against teams from the top level of Division I. That streak includes a 58-22 loss at Toledo in the 2011 season opener.
The New Hampshire players enjoy the challenge of playing against an FBS foe, but they don’t dwell on it.
“You want to see where you stand,” sophomore cornerback Casey DeAndrade said about playing an FBS team. “The good thing is they have 11 people on the field and we have 11 people on the field. … We’re not going in saying they’re better than us, but I think we accept the underdog role sometimes better than other teams do, and I think it’s a good spot for us to be in.”
Toledo may be in a different league and at a different level, but the Rockets offense will look familiar to DeAndrade and the UNH defense, which allowed 23 points per game last year and returns eight starters. Like New Hampshire, Toledo runs an up-tempo, spread-formation offense.
“It’s a little bit like what we’re trying to do,” McDonnell said. “They do it a little bit better, a little bit faster.”
The Rockets averaged 33 points and 447.3 yards per game last season, but they did lose their quarterback, leading rusher and leading receiver. Still, they return talent and experience at running back (Kareem Hunt – 866 yards, 6.3 yards per carry and six touchdowns last year), receiver (Alonzo Russell – 59 catches for 728 yards and six touchdowns) and on the offensive line (four returning starters from a group that gave up just 0.50 sacks per game, the best mark in the FBS).
Toledo’s starting quarterback, Phillip Ely, is an unknown. The junior sat out last year after transferring from Alabama. Toledo Coach Matt Campbell said Ely won the job due to his consistency and decision making. Ely may not be much of a running threat, but Campbell said, “he can make all the throws on the football field.”
Ten starters return for Toledo’s defense, which gave up 28.6 points per game last year. But that unit is also a bit of a mystery because the Rockets have a new defensive coordinator, Jon Heacock, who was most recently at Purdue and also spent nine years as the head coach at Youngstown State.
“They’ve got a new defensive coordinator, so we just got to go out there and be prepared for whatever comes our way,” Harris said.
The Rockets are also ready for the UNH offense (30.8 points per game last year, eight returning starters) to throw plenty their way, as well. Campbell was quick to praise UNH quarterback Sean Goldrich and his array of weapons.
“The thing that jumps off the film the most is the talent they do have at their skill positions,” Campbell said. “Their tight end (Harold Spears) is outstanding. They’ve got two or three receivers that, as I look at it, would probably be one of the top two or three receivers in our conference with their ability to run and make plays down the field.”
Toledo may be a 10-point favorite, but there’s little doubt that UNH has the ability to compete with, and potentially beat, the Rockets. Now the Wildcats just need to prove it.
“We just want to see where we stand with them,” DeAndrade said. “And hopefully we stand a little better than they do on Saturday.”
(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 369-3341 or on Twittter @timosullivan20.)