UNH football team ready to open FCS playoffs at home
DURHAM – Members of the University of New Hampshire football team were so happy to receive an at-large bid to the FCS playoffs last Sunday, they didn’t notice right away they were going to be hosting a first-round game.
“Going in I had no idea what to expect,” junior receiver R.J. Harris said. “Everybody had their fingers crossed. When we saw our name pop up we were just excited to be in it. A couple minutes later we realized the game’s at home and that added even more to the excitement.”
The Wildcats hope the familiar surroundings will give them an edge when they face Patriot League champion Lafayette today (noon, ESPN3) at Cowell Stadium, where they are 5-0 this season and 24-2 in their last 26 games.
They’re 33-4 at The Dungeon since the start of the 2007 season.
They turned in their best defensive effort of the season last Saturday at home in a 24-3 win over Maine that cemented their 10th straight appearance in the NCAA tournament, the longest active streak in the nation.
UNH is hosting its first playoff game in eight years.
“It’s good to be in the cozy confines of Cowell Stadium,” Coach Sean McDonnell said. “The kids take great pride playing on this field.”
“Our record speaks for itself at home,” Harris said. “It’s a comfort level of us being here at The Dungeon.”
But it won’t guarantee a victory over the upstart Leopards, who made it this far for the first time since 2007.
The teams took similar paths en route to the playoffs. Both overcame slow starts and got hot midway through the season. They also had to beat an archrival on the last day of the regular season in order to keep playing.
Lafayette defeated Lehigh, 50-28, last week to capture the league title and clinch an automatic berth. The Leopards (5-6), who won four of their last five games following a 1-5 start, are the only team in the field with a losing record.
“That means nothing,” McDonnell said. “They’re 4-1 in the conference and beat a team that beat us. This is a lot tougher than people think.”
That should be enough to get the Wildcats’ attention. They dropped a 34-27 decision to Lehigh early in the season after leading 27-13.
The unranked Leopards also handed No. 5 Fordham its only loss.
“We don’t really look at the record too much,” Harris said. “We watched them on film and they play really hard. They beat a team that we lost to.”
“We fully intend to go to New Hampshire and win,” Lafayette Coach Frank Tavani told The Express-Times. “We’re not satisfied with being Patriot League champions and beating Lehigh.”
No. 15 UNH (7-4, 6-2 CAA) upset CAA champion and then-No. 4 Maine to extend its season. Three of the Wildcats’ last six wins came against opponents that were nationally ranked at the time.
UNH has won three in a row and six of its last seven games.
“Huge win over Maine,” senior co-captain Chris Setian said. “Now we get to live another day. The great thing about the playoffs is everything is zero-zero. Clean slate.”
Defensively, the Wildcats have allowed 20 points or fewer in the last five games and six of the last seven. They’ll be tested by a Lafayette attack that has averaged 38.2 points in its last five games after scoring 20.7 in the first six.
The turnaround coincided with the emergence of freshman quarterback Drew Reed, who has passed for 1,681 yards and 17 touchdowns in half a season.
“He’s got a quick release,” offensive coordinator John Lyons said. “He’s been very impressive as a freshman.”
Reed threw for 378 yards and three TDs against Lehigh. He’s completed almost 74 percent of his passes under offensive coordinator and former Maine QB Mickey Fein.
“He puts the ball on people,” McDonnell said. “He doesn’t get frazzled much by what’s going on around him.”
The Wildcats sacked Maine quarterback Marcus Wasilewski five times and forced two turnovers.
UNH’s quarterback situation isn’t quite as settled. Both have been injured, but sophomore Sean Goldrich (ribs) is likely to get the start over junior Andy Vailas (knee), who was hurt against Maine.
Vailas, however, is expected to be the backup.
“They’re both banged up,” junior Justin Mello said. “It’s nothing too bad. It’s a two-headed monster at quarterback. They’re both really good.”
The Wildcats have lost three straight playoff games and four of their last five, including last year’s 23-7 setback at Wofford.
The winner of today’s game will play at No. 5 seed Maine next week in the second round.
“We’ve had this ongoing record of getting into the playoffs,” Setian said. “We want to keep going. We’re going to take it one game at a time. We’ve been doing that since the Towson game.”