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UNH football team prepares for equally hot Southeastern Louisiana in quarterfinals

  • Maine tight end Justin Perillo (80) can't hold on to a pass while being defended by New Hampshire defensive back Casey DeAndrade (28) and linebacker Akil Anderson (42) during the first half of an NCAA football playoff game, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013, in Orono, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

    Maine tight end Justin Perillo (80) can't hold on to a pass while being defended by New Hampshire defensive back Casey DeAndrade (28) and linebacker Akil Anderson (42) during the first half of an NCAA football playoff game, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013, in Orono, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

  • Maine tight end Justin Perillo (80) can't hold on to a pass while being defended by New Hampshire defensive back Casey DeAndrade (28) and linebacker Akil Anderson (42) during the first half of an NCAA football playoff game, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013, in Orono, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

    Maine tight end Justin Perillo (80) can't hold on to a pass while being defended by New Hampshire defensive back Casey DeAndrade (28) and linebacker Akil Anderson (42) during the first half of an NCAA football playoff game, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013, in Orono, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

  • Maine tight end Justin Perillo (80) can't hold on to a pass while being defended by New Hampshire defensive back Casey DeAndrade (28) and linebacker Akil Anderson (42) during the first half of an NCAA football playoff game, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013, in Orono, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
  • Maine tight end Justin Perillo (80) can't hold on to a pass while being defended by New Hampshire defensive back Casey DeAndrade (28) and linebacker Akil Anderson (42) during the first half of an NCAA football playoff game, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013, in Orono, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

DURHAM – Both teams are riding impressive winning streaks, rolling with confidence and momentum, and playing their best football of the season. And both know they will have to be even better tonight if they want to play another day.

No. 15 New Hampshire (9-4) has won eight of its last nine games on the way to its 7 p.m. FCS quarterfinal contest at No. 7 Southeastern Louisiana (11-2). That stretch includes a pair of convincing playoff wins for UNH – 45-7 against Lafayette on Nov. 30 and 41-27 at No. 8 Maine last weekend. But the Wildcats are now facing a team that has won 10 straight and propelled itself into this quarterfinal with a last-minute, 30-29 second-round win against Sam Houston State, a team that was in the last two national championship games.

“We’ve stepped it up a notch here,” New Hampshire Coach Sean McDonnell said. “We’re going to another level.”

The feeling is the same for the Lions. They may have the higher ranking and the home field advantage, but this is the school’s first-ever trip to the playoffs. UNH, on the other hand, has been in the postseason 10 straight years, the best streak in the country.

“There’s a lot more at stake now and I think you’ve got to turn to (New Hampshire), I think you can say their players are a little more experienced and seasoned in the NCAA playoffs than we are,” Southeastern Coach Ron Roberts said. “It’s going to be a huge game and we have to handle that stage a little better than we did last week because we did some uncharacteristic things to ourselves, but obviously there’s a wealth of confidence and momentum for both sides.”

Those “uncharacteristic things” included a pair of turnovers that led to two touchdowns and a 21-7 first-quarter deficit for the Lions. They fought back for a 24-21 halftime lead, but Sam Houston was up, 29-24, with just 1:21 left in the game before Southeastern quarterback Bryan Bennett, the Southland Conference Player of the Year, led his team on an 85-yard, 49-second touchdown drive by going 6-for-6, the last completion a 1-yard scoring toss to Jeff Smiley.

That clutch display, plus Bennett’s season stats (190-for-308 passing for 2,896 yards, and 1,017 rushing yards), would be plenty to convince the Wildcats that defending Bennett will be a challenge. But they also have some inside information on Bennett, who is a transfer from the University of Oregon, where he played for former UNH assistant coach Chip Kelly.

“I called Chip on Sunday night and said, ‘What do you know about this guy?’ He said, ‘I’d like to give you some good news, but I can’t. I’m going to give you some bad news. He’s a really good football player,’ ” McDonnell said.

While Bennett has the foot speed and arm strength to be a one-man show, he has plenty of help from the rest of the offense, which is ranked No. 7 in the FCS in scoring with 40.1 points per game. The Lions have a trio of dangerous running backs in Rasheed Harrell (665 yards, eight touchdowns, 5.2 yards per carry), Xavier Roberson (547 yards, six touchdowns, 4.6 ypc) and Kody Sutton (390 yards, six touchdowns, 4.0 ypc), and they have eight players who have at least 10 receptions, led by receivers Smiley (53 catches, 705 yards, six touchdowns), Tony McCrea (38 catches, 678 yards, two touchdowns) and Marquis Fruge (35 catches, 595 yards, six touchdowns).

The Southeastern defense, which allows 22.9 points per game, is led by 6-foot-1, 250-pound middle linebacker Cqulin Hubert (77 tackles, 10.5 for a loss), “who is large and explosive and if he gets anywhere near you, he is going to knock you backwards,” UNH offensive coordinator Ryan Carty said.

With their 3-3-5 formation and penchant for man coverage, the Lions are not similar to any of New Hampshire’s previous opponents. Carty did say the most comparable defense, in terms of talent and effectiveness, would be William & Mary, the team that handed UNH its last loss, 17-0, on Nov. 2.

In an interesting coincidence, Roberts said the UNH defense was most comparable to South Dakota State, the team that handed SLU its last loss, 34-26 on Sept. 14. New Hampshire is giving up 21.2 ppg, 15th in the FCS, but has surrendered just 14.9 ppg in its last seven games. That defense is led by a pass rush ranked No. 5 in the FCS (3.3 sacks per game), a pair of fast and productive linebackers in Akil Anderson (104 tackles, 12.5 for a loss) and Shane McNeely (104 tackles, 11 for a loss), ballhawking cornerback Casey DeAndrade (18 passes defended, No. 2 in the FCS) and an emotional and effective senior captain, safety Manny Asam (80 tackles, third on the team).

While the defensive philosophies are different, the offensive schemes for the Wildcats and Lions are similar. UNH’s up-tempo, spread attack asks a lot of its quarterback, and Sean Goldrich (121-for-203 passing, 1,683 yards, 298 rushing yards) has been delivering of late, which is why he’ll once again get the nod over Andy Vailas.

New Hampshire, like SLU, spreads the ball around to a host of talented skill players (UNH also has eight players with at least 10 receptions), although the Wildcats do have some clear-cut leaders in running backs Nico Steriti (979 yards, eight touchdowns, 5.3 ypc) and Chris Setian (435 yards, seven touchdowns, 5.3 ypc), and receivers R.J. Harris (60 catches, 861 yards, five touchdowns) and Justin Mello (66 catches, 936 yards, 10 touchdowns). But don’t be surprised to see UNH, which is scoring 32.9 points per game, use the athletic abilities of running back Dalton Crossan, receiver Jared Allison or tight end Harold Spears against Southeastern’s man coverage.

The average point spread has Southeastern favored by 8.5 points, but it’s tricky to predict how these two teams from different corners of the country will actually match up against each other.

“You don’t really know until you’re down there,” Carty said. “It’s one of those things when you’re playing a team from a different conference that you’ve never played before and you haven’t played any crossover games. There’s no film that you can compare to, it’s all based on feeling and what you think you’re seeing on film.”

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

STARTING LINEUPS

UNH

Offense

LT – 66 Seamus O’Neill, sr., 6-4, 280

LG – 69 Alexander Morrill, fr., 6-2, 299

C – 53 Tad McNeely, fr., 6-2, 270

RG – 63 Ricky Archer, sr., 6-2, 283

RT – 78 Rob Bowman, jr., 6-5, 305

TE – 89 Harold Spears, jr., 6-4, 252

QB – 5 Sean Goldrich, so., 6-3, 213

RB – 22 Nico Steriti, jr., 5-11, 227

WR – 15 R.J. Harris, jr., 6-0, 200

WR – 81 Justin Mello, sr., 6-0, 212

WR – 82 Jimmy Giansante, jr., 6-2, 206

Defense

DE – 96 Cody Muller, sr., 6-4, 255

DT – 58 Sean McCann, sr., 6-3, 275

DT – 60 Matt Kaplan, jr., 6-1, 292

DE – 55 Jay Colbert, sr., 6-1, 258

LB – 51 Shane McNeely, jr., 6-2, 238

LB – 42 Akil Anderson, so., 6-1, 214

CB – 9 Lamar Edmonds, so., 5-10, 173

SS – 4 Manny Asam, sr., 6-0, 187

WS – 46 Hayden Knudson, so., 6-0, 215

FS – 16 Nick Cefalo, jr., 6-2, 202

CB – 28 Casey DeAndrade, fr., 5-11, 203

Specialists

PK/KO – 13 Mike MacArthur, sr., 5-10, 186

P – 10 Brad Prasky, jr., 6-1, 191

PR – 16 Nick Cefalo, jr., 6-2, 202

KR – 22 Nico Steriti, jr., 5-11, 227

SOUTHEASTERN LOUISIANA

Offense

WR – 17 Isaiah Kepley, jr., 6-2, 210

LT – 76 Gasten Gabriel, sr., 6-5, 310

LG – 71 Joe Graves, so., 6-2, 315

C – 62 Marshall Paris, sr., 6-2, 295

RG – 78 D.J. Williams, jR., 6-5, 320

RT – 53 Jonathan Braddock, jr., 6-4, 275

TE – 47 Taylor Jenkins, so., 6-3, 235

WR – 5 Chris Malott, jr., 6-5, 220

QB – 3 Bryan Bennett, jr., 6-3, 205

RB – 2 Rasheed Harrell, so., 5-10, 185

WR – 7 Marquis Fruge’, sr., 6-0, 200

Defense

DE – 94 Jacob Newman, jr., 6-2, 275

NG – 91 Greg Triay, sr., 6-2, 275

DE – 11 Jeremy Williams, sr., 6-1, 285

OLB – 6 Isiah Corbett, jr., 6-3, 250

MLB – 51 Cqulin Hubert, sr., 6-1, 250

OLB – 95 Justin Church, jr., 6-4, 235

CB – 27 Harlan Miller, so., 6-0, 170

Lion – 23 Tyler Stoddard, jr., 6-2, 205

FS – 4 Theo Alexander, sr., 6-4, 205

Ram – 2 Kevin Harmon, sr., 6-2, 195

CB – 7 Marice Sutton, jr., 5-10, 180

Specialists

K – 41 Seth Sebastian, sr., 5-10, 180

KO – 39 Ryan Adams, jr., 6-1, 210

P – 8 Matt Mccormick, sr., 6-0, 200

KR – 1 Xavier Roberson, so., 5-7, 170

PR – 12 Jarrell Bennett, fr., 5-10, 160

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