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UNH football team hungry to improve on momentous 2013 season

The quarterback, the leading rusher, the leading receiver and four offensive lineman with starting experience all return this season for a University of New Hampshire offense that averaged 30.8 points per game last year. Nine of 11 starters, including the tackle, sack and interception leaders, return for a UNH defense that helped the Wildcats turn a 1-3 start into a 10-5 finish, the school’s first appearance in the FCS semifinals and a No. 5 national ranking to end the 2013 season.

So there were plenty of good reasons for New Hampshire to receive 15 of 24 first-place votes and run away with the top spot in the 2014 Colonial Athletic Association Preseason poll. But UNH Coach Sean McDonnell didn’t want to hear any of them.

“It means nothing right now,” McDonnell said on Wednesday at CAA Media Day at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. “It’s last year’s laurels.”

What does mean something to McDonnell is the character of his players. Asked how his team has qualified for 10 straight postseason appearances, the best streak in the country, McDonnell said it starts with his players and their willingness to put in the daily work that leads to long-term consistency.

“I think we’ve had a pretty good recipe with how we look to recruit kids that fit what UNH is all about,” McDonnell said. “We’re a blue collar, hard hat, lunch bucket type of place, and the kids that we have recruited have really embraced the opportunity to continue that legacy and carry on the tradition at UNH.”

That character was put to the test last year when the Wildcats stumbled to the 1-3 start. UNH had leads in all three of those losses, and late leads in two of them. A tough stretch like that would have crushed many teams, but not New Hampshire.

“We were struggling a little bit, and I thought that part of the kids, their makeup, really enabled us to turn things around in the middle of the season and carried us through to the end of the season,” McDonnell said.

That end was bittersweet for the Wildcats. They claimed a dramatic 20-17 comeback win at Southeastern Louisiana to earn their first trip to the FCS semifinals, but that trip ended with a 52-14 loss at North Dakota State, which went on to win its third straight FCS championship.

Their first appearance in the semifinals may have ended in a beatdown, but the blue collar ’Cats will work hard to learn from it and use it as fuel for this season.

“It was tremendous experience,” UNH senior co-captain and defensive end Cody Muller said during his CAA Media Day interview. “When we beat Southeastern Louisiana, our team, our fans, the coaches, everybody was going crazy. It was a great time. And then to go out to North Dakota State, we got an idea of where we have to be playing wise, what the level is, and it left us hungry for this coming season.”

The Wildcats won’t have to wait long for another chance to face a quality team on the road. They open the season on Aug. 30 at FBS Toledo. The Rockets have been picked to finish first in the Mid-American Conference West Division after going 7-5 last year and losing just nine players from the 44 who were on their 2013 first- and second-strings.

UNH is no stranger to playing at Toledo’s Glass Bowl. The Rockets smoked the ’Cats, 58-22, in the 2011 season opener.

The Wildcats built a reputation as a giant killer by going 5-0 against FBS teams from 2004-09. But they have dropped their last four games against FBS foes, including last year’s 24-21 loss at Central Michigan when they blew a 14-point fourth quarter lead and gave up the winning field goal with no time left on the clock.

“We’re really excited. We’ve been looking forward to (playing Toledo) since the season ended last year,” said offensive lineman Rob Bowman, UNH’s other senior captain. “Some keys to us winning would be playing for the four quarters and staying hungry. We haven’t beaten an FBS team in a while and the loss to CMU was devastating to say the least. So we’ve got to play the full four quarters and really finish the game strong.”

Nothing to see here

It wasn’t exactly a controversy, but there was definitely a heated competition between Sean Goldrich and Andy Vailas for the starting quarterback spot going into the 2012 and 2013 seasons. Goldrich won the battle to start 2012, and Vailas was the starter at the beginning of last season.

The two split starts and snaps for much of the 2013 campaign, but Goldrich took over as the full-time starter in the playoffs. The junior from West Haven, Conn., followed that up with a productive spring and has cemented his place at the top of the depth chart.

“Probably won’t see them split snaps as much as they have,” McDonnell said. “Sean kind of separated himself at the end of the season and he had a good spring.”

But Vailas, a senior from Bedford, is still a valuable part of the team. McDonnell said he won’t be in the backfield at the same time as Goldrich, a look the Wildcats showed on multiple occasions last year, but the coach said Vailas may be used at different positions in the offense. And since the quarterback run is a big part of the UNH offense, having a capable backup is critical.

“Our quarterbacks run a lot and they take some hits, so we’re lucky to have a good backup,” Bowman said.

Plenty to see here

Even if you can’t make it to Cowell Stadium in Durham, you’ll still get plenty of chances to see the Wildcats. Five of UNH’s 11 regular-season games will be televised, starting with the opener at Toledo, which will be streamed live on ESPN3.

The Sept. 13 game against Lehigh will be broadcast by the CAA’s newest television partner, American Sports Network. The Sept. 20 game at Richmond will be on Comcast SportsNet. And the Oct. 11 game against William & Mary and the Nov. 22 game at Maine will be on NBC Sports Network.

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

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