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UNH hits a home run by swinging the bat

New Hampshire tight end Harold Spears (89) is wide open as he catches a pass on a trick play against Maine during the second half of an NCAA football playoff game, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013, in Orono, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

New Hampshire tight end Harold Spears (89) is wide open as he catches a pass on a trick play against Maine during the second half of an NCAA football playoff game, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013, in Orono, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

ORONO, Maine – Sean McDonnell calls it swinging the bat. What the University of New Hampshire football coach means by that is taking chances, pulling out all the stops, reaching into the bag of tricks, or whatever other euphemism you want to use.

When the Wildcats beat Maine on Nov. 23 to secure a playoff spot, they swung the bat with a tricked-out screen pass on the first play of the game and a fake punt that led to the first touchdown in their 24-3 win. And the No. 15 ’Cats (9-4) were still swinging it when they beat the No. 8 Black Bears again on Saturday, 41-27 this time, a win that earned UNH a quarterfinal date next Saturday with No. 7 Southeastern Louisiana.

“We told the kids at the beginning of the year that we were going to swing the bat this year and we put some stuff in there again,” McDonnell said after Saturday’s win. “You can’t leave those in the tank, I don’t think, not playing in this situation. We just wanted to make sure these kids knew we were going to give it every shot to win a football game. And most importantly, I believed they would execute.”

The player McDonnell showed the most belief in was Nico Steriti. The junior running back was at the center of UNH’s bat-swinging bag of tricks. Steriti received direct snaps five times on Saturday, and when he got the ball, it was anyone’s guess what he might do with it.

Twice Steriti ran after receiving the direct snap, twice he handed off to quarterback Sean Goldrich, and once Steriti threw it. The pass was the most memorable, and creative, variation.

It was the start of the third quarter with New Hampshire holding a slim 20-17 lead and facing a third-and-2 on the Maine 27. Goldrich lined up under center, which almost never happens in the Wildcats spread offense, but he didn’t get the ball. Instead, Tad McNeely snapped it through Goldrich’s legs to Steriti, who hesitated for a moment as if he was recovering a fumble, before throwing it to a wide open Harold Spears.

“I haven’t seen them snap it through the quarterback’s legs to Nico,” Maine Coach Jack Cosgrove said. “Haven’t seen that one before.”

Steriti’s pass was underthrown, so Spears had to wait for it and he was brought down at the 3. The Wildcats did score two plays later on a fade pass from Goldrich to Justin Mello, but that didn’t stop McDonnell from teasing Steriti after the game about his short throw.

“He’s never going to live down the fact that he didn’t throw a touchdown pass on that,” McDonnell said with a grin.

Steriti, who threw a 52-yard touchdown pass on a double screen on Nov. 9 against James Madison, was laughing along with McDonnell.

“I couldn’t really see much down there, so I just got it out there,” Steriti said. “I could have put a little more on it, but I’ll work on it this week in practice.”

The two occasions that Steriti ran the ball after a direct snap were pretty straight forward “Wildcat” plays that many teams use. But the two handoffs to Goldrich had their own unique and creative touches. The first handoff to Goldrich resulted in an 11-yard pass to R.J. Harris, and after the second handoff Goldrich flipped an option pitch to Harris for an 11-yard ground gain.

The ’Cats did run some similar handoff/pass and handoff/option plays last year, but they used two quarterbacks, Goldrich and Andy Vailas, in the backfield, which helped with the cadence, receiving the snap, making the fakes, and executing all the exchanges. So there was a little extra work to be done in practice last week to get Steriti up to speed.

“We practiced all week and even when we weren’t in certain team periods we practiced on the side with Sean and the rest of the quarterbacks,” Steriti said. “Just working on the cadence, because I had a little trouble with that, and working on catching the snap and making sure the fake didn’t get touched with Sean running by, but you know, it worked out for us and we were pleased with it.”

The other person who deserves credit for all the variations is offensive coordinator Ryan Carty. He was the one who wanted to use both Goldrich and Vailas in the backfield together last year and the one who decided to bring Steriti into that mix this season.

“Ryan Carty is pretty creative,” McDonnell said. “He comes in with these ideas and we talk about it and, you know, sometimes you’ve got to say, ‘Okay, go ahead,’ and let him do it. That’s what we did and the kids executed.”

Steriti finished Saturday’s game with 14 rushes for 74 yards, two catches for 26 yards and the one pass for 24 yards. Goldrich wound up with 291 passing yards and 33 rushing yards, and Harris had six catches for 85 yards and two carries for 17 yards.

All that free-wheeling versatility will give Southeastern Louisiana plenty to think about before Saturday’s 7 p.m. quarterfinal at Strawberry Stadium in Hammond, La. The Wildcats might keep snapping it to Steriti, or they might not, but one thing is sure – they will keep swinging the bat.

“Our kids want to do those things,” McDonnell said, “and as long as they keep executing ’em, we’re going to keep doing ’em.”

(Tom O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3341 or tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)

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