UNH football team opens playoffs against unique foe
The biggest college football tournament in the country resumes today, and once again New Hampshire sits in the thick of it.
“It’s another opportunity to play football for us and that’s something we take very seriously,” UNH captain Chris Zarkoskie said. “One of only 16 teams playing in December, so it’s a big honor.”
The FCS playoffs began last week with four first-round games. The entire field plays today, including the No. 11/13 Wildcats (8-3) at No. 9/9 Wofford (8-3) in Spartanburg, S.C.
It’s the opening playoff game for both teams, but it’s the ninth straight trip to the postseason for UNH, the longest current streak in the country. Wofford has been to the dance four times in the last five years. Both teams lost in their opening playoff games last year, UNH at Montana State and Wofford at Northern Iowa.
For the ’Cats to avoid another quick exit and reach the quarterfinals for a fourth time in five years, they’ll have to at least slow down Wofford’s running game. The Terriers average 348.2 rushing yards per game, second best in the FCS, and they do it with an option attack unlike anything UNH has faced since it played Army in 2008. The only guy left who played in that game is Terrence Klein, and he’s now on the New Hampshire coaching staff.
“Thank God we had an extra week to prepare for it,” UNH Coach Sean McDonnell said. “I was talking with our staff and with other people I know and said I would have hated to have had to play them (in a regular week) because of what you have to do to defend these guys.”
Wofford runs the ball on 80 to 90 percent of its plays. Even though the defense knows it’s coming, the Terriers deceive with multiple personnel groups, multiple points of attack and multiple ball carriers. They also use multiple formations, from old-school double wing and Wing T looks to modern spread formations.
“Teams that don’t see the triple option two and three times a year, it’s always a plus and I think we have the upper hand there, but we have to show up and play,” said senior fullback Eric Breitenstein, who led the Terriers with 1,653 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns.
The key to stopping the option game is tackling all three of the options no matter who has the ball. So, how do you prepare for that? Here’s one way.
“We’ve been practicing without a ball because you’ve got to tackle the dive, you’ve got to tackle the quarterback and you’ve got to tackle the pitch,” UNH linebacker and senior captain Alan Buzbee said. “So all week in practice guys have been doing that and I think it’s been really helping us keeping our eyes where we need to go.”
Not only are the Wildcats unaccustomed to playing against this kind of offense, they’re coming off a 64-35 loss to Towson in which they gave up 415 rushing yards. That was the worst performance against the run this season by the ’Cats, but they did also give up 164.6 rushing yards per game on the season, eighth in the CAA and 67th in the FCS. Still, they go into this game with belief.
“If you look at that (Towson) film, there were guys there to make the plays, we just didn’t make them,” Buzbee said. “Guys just need to make plays when the opportunity is there and I have no doubt that we’ll do that this weekend. I don’t think there’s any type of concern. I think we’ve shown the capability to stop the run this year and I think we can do that this weekend.”
Even if UNH slows Wofford, the Terriers are still going to find some points. After all, they average 31.4 per game. The Wildcats average 36.6 ppg (10th in the FCS), and they know they’ll have to make the most of their scoring chances today.
“We definitely need to capitalize every time we have the football and put it in the end zone and score sevens and not settle for field goals,” Zarkoskie said.
New Hampshire’s offense has also been powered by its running game this year (234.2 rush yards per game). Nico Steriti leads the Wildcats with 870 rushing yards, but the ’Cats have also gotten solid contributions from running backs Chris Setian (472 rush yards) and Jimmy Owens (402), as well as quarterbacks Andy Vailas (449) and Sean Goldrich (181), who are once again both expected to play today in a rotation to be determined by the game’s events.
The Wildcats will look to establish the ground game, but Wofford has been stingier against the run (125.9 rush ypg allowed, 20th in the FCS) than it has against the pass (190.2 pass ypg allowed, 33rd in the FCS) this season. And the Terriers have allowed only 17.7 ppg this year, 10th in the FCS.
“We’ve got to go with what got us there, and we’ve been fortunate that we’ve run the ball pretty well against people, but you know we may hit a stone wall,” McDonnell said. “So you have to be able to adjust and run your offense and have some things ready to go when people are defending you.”
(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3371 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)