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With young quarterbacks, UNH offense succumbs to playoff pressure

  • New Hampshire's Sean Goldrich (5) fumbles the ball on a play against Wofford during an NCAA college football game in Spartanburg, S.C., Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012. Woffors won 23-7. (AP Photo/The Spartanburg Herald Journal, Alex Hicks Jr.)

    New Hampshire's Sean Goldrich (5) fumbles the ball on a play against Wofford during an NCAA college football game in Spartanburg, S.C., Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012. Woffors won 23-7. (AP Photo/The Spartanburg Herald Journal, Alex Hicks Jr.) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • New Hampshire's Andy Vails (14) gains short yardage against Wofford during an NCAA college football game in Spartanburg, S.C., Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012. (AP Photo/The Spartanburg Herald Journal, Alex Hicks Jr.)

    New Hampshire's Andy Vails (14) gains short yardage against Wofford during an NCAA college football game in Spartanburg, S.C., Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012. (AP Photo/The Spartanburg Herald Journal, Alex Hicks Jr.) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • New Hampshire's Sean Goldrich (5) fumbles the ball on a play against Wofford during an NCAA college football game in Spartanburg, S.C., Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012. Woffors won 23-7. (AP Photo/The Spartanburg Herald Journal, Alex Hicks Jr.)

    New Hampshire's Sean Goldrich (5) fumbles the ball on a play against Wofford during an NCAA college football game in Spartanburg, S.C., Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012. Woffors won 23-7. (AP Photo/The Spartanburg Herald Journal, Alex Hicks Jr.) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • New Hampshire's Andy Vails (14) gains short yardage against Wofford during an NCAA college football game in Spartanburg, S.C., Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012. (AP Photo/The Spartanburg Herald Journal, Alex Hicks Jr.)

    New Hampshire's Andy Vails (14) gains short yardage against Wofford during an NCAA college football game in Spartanburg, S.C., Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012. (AP Photo/The Spartanburg Herald Journal, Alex Hicks Jr.) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • New Hampshire's Sean Goldrich (5) fumbles the ball on a play against Wofford during an NCAA college football game in Spartanburg, S.C., Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012. Woffors won 23-7. (AP Photo/The Spartanburg Herald Journal, Alex Hicks Jr.)
  • New Hampshire's Andy Vails (14) gains short yardage against Wofford during an NCAA college football game in Spartanburg, S.C., Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012. (AP Photo/The Spartanburg Herald Journal, Alex Hicks Jr.)
  • New Hampshire's Sean Goldrich (5) fumbles the ball on a play against Wofford during an NCAA college football game in Spartanburg, S.C., Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012. Woffors won 23-7. (AP Photo/The Spartanburg Herald Journal, Alex Hicks Jr.)
  • New Hampshire's Andy Vails (14) gains short yardage against Wofford during an NCAA college football game in Spartanburg, S.C., Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012. (AP Photo/The Spartanburg Herald Journal, Alex Hicks Jr.)

The inexperience at quarterback was the top concern when New Hampshire’s season began. Redshirt freshman Sean Goldrich and sophomore Andy Vailas took turns easing that concern during the regular season. But as soon as the FCS playoffs began yesterday for UNH, that original fear resurfaced.

Goldrich had to burn a timeout on the opening play, before the game’s first snap. He threw a near interception on third down of that initial series. And it never got much better. Goldrich was harried and anxious all afternoon, threw two interceptions, lost a fumble and took four sacks. Vailas, who is more of a runner, gained just 2 yards on six carries and finished 4-for-9 passing.

Without direction from their quarterback, the Wildcats crossed the 50 just four times and never made it inside the Wofford 20. On a day when the defense played above expectations, and even scored a touchdown of its own, the UNH offense was shut out for the first time in 17 years as the No. 11/13 ’Cats lost, 23-7, at Gibbs Stadium in Spartanburg, S.C. It’s the second straight year New Hampshire’s season has ended in the second round of the tournament.

“I was a little nervous going into the game, but as soon as we started playing I felt I had a great group of guys around me to support me,” said Goldrich, who finished 17-for-29 for 113 yards. “Unfortunately it just didn’t work out the way we hoped.”

Things didn’t go as planned right from the start for Goldrich and the Wildcats (8-4). They were expecting a certain look from No. 9/9 Wofford (9-3) on that first play, but when the Terriers didn’t cooperate, Goldrich got flustered. A more experienced quarterback may have just run the play, or quickly called an audible. But redshirt freshman Goldrich, who was limited to six games of significant playing time because of injury, used that quick timeout and set a jittery a tone.

“We were looking for them to line up in a certain defense so we could run a play that we had in mind,” Goldrich said. “But they were kind of shifty with the way they ran it, so it took us a little time to recognize what they were doing.”

The first play from Vailas wasn’t much better. After Goldrich wobbled a near interception to end that first drive, and took a sack to end the next, Vailas came on with 5:24 left in the first and Wofford holding a 7-0 lead. The sophomore from Bedford mishandled his first snap and had to fall on it for a 4-yard loss. Vailas did complete a 26-yard pass on the next play, but that would be would be his longest gain of the day and account for more than half of his total passing yards.

While the offense floundered, the UNH defense kept the score at 7-0 for most of the first half, despite the hammering from fullback Eric Breitenstein (22 carries, 247 yards, three touchdowns) and Wofford’s option ground game.

“The defense played great, I thought,” Goldrich said. “They did everything they needed to. Unfortunately we couldn’t help them out on the offensive side of the ball, but I’ve got to give the defense a lot of credit.”

The offense did find some traction early in the second quarter, but two mistakes from Goldrich at the worst times killed momentum.

First, E.J. Spiller strip sacked Goldrich with 13:50 left in the first half. The Wildcats had driven to the Wofford 27, which would end up being their deepest penetration of the game, but the fumble recovery from Spiller ended that.

The Wildcats moved the ball to the Wofford 30 later in the second quarter, but on an innocuous second-and-7, Goldrich threw a poor pass into the line, the ball tipped and hung in the air, and Alvin Scioneaux came down with the interception. The Terriers then went 67 yards the other way and took a 13-0 lead with 1:17 left in the half.

Another interception from Goldrich gave Wofford a chance to add to that lead before the break, but Kasey Redfern missed a 34-yard field goal on the last play of the first half.

New Hampshire scored its defensive touchdown on the first series of the third quarter. And even though Wofford answered right back with a touchdown of its own to make it 20-7, there was still 9:58 left in the third. The Wildcats had plenty of time to respond, they just couldn’t do it.

UNH never made it past the Wofford 40 in the second half. In the end, the Wildcats crossed the 50 only four times and gained just 238 total yards, which was less than half of Wofford’s total (479) and only a little more than half of what UNH normally gains (470.9 yards-per-game average heading into the contest).

Wofford, of course, deserves much of the credit. Remember, this is a team that held South Carolina, the No. 10 team in the BCS standings, to only 293 yards just two weeks ago in a 24-7 loss.

“Defensively, I’m not surprised at Wofford,” UNH Coach Sean McDonnell said. “I thought watching the tape that these guys played downhill. Their front handled us pretty well and their linebackers did a great job.”

“They did a great job mixing up their blitzes and doing their stunts and kind of kept us off balance, kept us out of our game,” Goldrich said. “And they were in the right spots all the time with their coverage and really didn’t give us an opportunity to get flowing.”

It also would be unfair to assign all of the blame to the quarterbacks. New Hampshire has leaned on its running game this year and averaged 234.2 rushing yards per game during the regular season. But the offensive line didn’t open holes yesterday, the backs didn’t make things happen on their own, the ground game picked up just 73 yards, and all the pressure fell on the young quarterbacks.

That pressure, the game and the stakes may have all been too big for Goldrich and Vailas. The good news for UNH is now both of them have experienced this kind of atmosphere, and both should have a sense of how to handle it better the next time.

“We’ve got to do some things, fix some things in the offseason,” Goldrich said. “We’ll be back and we’ll be prepared for being in that situation again.”

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3371 or tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)

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