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UNH football team faces ultimate test in two-time champ North Dakota State

New Hampshire defensive back Manny Asam (4) reacts after the New Hampshire defense stopped James Madison on fourth down during the fourth quarter of a NCAA college football game at Cowell Stadium in Durham, N.H., Saturday, Nov. 5, 2011.  New Hampshire defeated James Madison 28-10.  (AP Photo/Josh Gibney)

New Hampshire defensive back Manny Asam (4) reacts after the New Hampshire defense stopped James Madison on fourth down during the fourth quarter of a NCAA college football game at Cowell Stadium in Durham, N.H., Saturday, Nov. 5, 2011. New Hampshire defeated James Madison 28-10. (AP Photo/Josh Gibney)

DURHAM – When tonight’s game is done in Fargo, N.D., New Hampshire might be making plans for the FCS national championship Jan. 4 in Frisco, Texas. But if the No. 15 Wildcats (10-4) want to be celebrating at the end, they will have to take care of business at the beginning of the semifinal against No. 1 North Dakota State (13-0).

If the two-time defending champion Bison get an early lead, they have the kind of power running attack (253.8 yards per game, seventh in the FCS) and lock-down defense (11.4 points per game allowed, first in the FCS) that can make games short and leads last.

“They’re a team that if they get ahead of you, it’s pretty much over,” UNH senior captain and safety Manny Asam said.

That’s what happened last Friday when North Dakota State beat Coastal Carolina in the quarterfinals, 48-14. The Bison scored on their first three possessions, they forced Coastal Carolina to punt on its first six possessions, and NDSU led 17-0 by the end of the first quarter and 34-7 by halftime.

“It was something to behold, man,” UNH Coach Sean McDonnell said. “I was sitting in the hotel room in Louisiana watching that going, ‘Oh my.’ ”

The Wildcats were watching from that hotel because they took on No. 7 Southeastern Louisiana the next night and came away with a 20-17 win to earn this first-ever trip to the FCS semifinals. UNH needed a last-minute touchdown from sophomore quarterback Sean Goldrich to win, but the ’Cats also started fast, scoring touchdowns on two of their first three drives and marching 73 yards to the SLU 10 on the fourth drive before missing a field goal. Goldrich knows his team will need a similar start tonight at the Fargodome.

“We have to put up points fast,” said Goldrich, who threw for 276 yards and ran for 99 yards and three touchdowns last week. “We have to come out of the gates flying around and make a statement and let them know that we’re not going to be run over.”

He’s right, but it won’t be easy. NDSU’s defense is led by a secondary that features three-time All-American cornerback Marcus Williams, strong safety Colten Heagle, who was named a Third Team All-American by The Sports Network, and free safety Christian Dudzik, who leads the team with five interceptions.

The front seven in North Dakota State’s 4-3 defense was hurt in early November when it lost middle linebacker Grant Olson, who was named Third Team All-America despite a season-ending injury. But the Bison are still tough up front with Second Team All-American nose guard Ryan Drevlow and defensive end Kyle Emanuel, who leads the team with 6.5 sacks.

“North Dakota State has players all over the place, so you can’t focus in on just one part of the team,” Goldrich said.

So it’s a good thing the Wildcats can attack from multiple angles behind a skilled and sizable offensive line and with a wide range of skill players. It starts with Goldrich, who showed his own versatile skill set last week, but UNH’s entire offense is a testament to complementary parts.

The running game features Nico Steriti (191 carries, 1,021 yards, eight touchdowns), but can also go to the pounding Chris Setian (86 carries, 451 yards, seven touchdowns). The passing attack has two leading receivers in R.J. Harris (71 catches, 971 yards) and Justin Mello (71 catches, 1,020 yards, 10 touchdowns), but it also utilizes tight end Harold Spears (32 catches, 448 yards) and receivers Jimmy Giansante (30 catches, 298 yards) and Jared Allison (20 catches, 200 yards). And don’t forget redshirt freshman running back Dalton Crossan, who is averaging 12.4 yards per rush (29 carries, 359 yards) and 10.2 yards per catch (11 catches, 112 yards).

While UNH’s spread offense uses a multitude of formations, motions and misdirections, the Bison attack defenses with a straightforward approach.

“They’re not going to sugarcoat anything,” Asam said. “They’re just going to try and play downhill on you.”

But like New Hampshire, NDSU can do that with a variety of weapons. Quarterback Brock Jensen was named the Missouri Valley Conference Offensive Player of the Year after completing 66.9 percent of his passes (194-for-290) for 2,512 yards, 30 touchdowns and six interceptions, and running for 429 yards and eight more touchdowns. The Bison also have two remarkable running backs in Sam Ojuri (186 carries, 1,239 yards, 6.7 avg., eight touchdowns) and John Crockett (168 carries, 996 yards, 5.9 avg., 10 touchdowns), and a pair of talented receivers in Zach Vraa (59 catches, 1,064 yards, 13 touchdowns) and Ryan Smith (50 catches, 661 yards, five touchdowns).

But NDSU’s most talented offensive player is probably 6-foot-6, 314-pound left tackle Billy Turner, a two-time All-American who McDonnell said “might be the best offensive lineman” he’s ever coached against.

It will be a major challenge, but the Wildcats can counter the Bison ground game with a deep defensive line that has a pair of stout tackles in 6-1, 292-pound Matt Kaplan and 6-3, 275-pound Sean McCann and two play-making ends in Cody Muller (10 tackles for a loss, two forced fumbles) and Jay Colbert (six sacks). If that line can hold its own, linebackers Akil Anderson (114 tackles) and Shane McNeely (111 tackles) have the speed and strength to finish plays.

The numbers are daunting for New Hampshire. North Dakota State is ranked 14th in scoring offense (38.0 ppg), 13th in total offense (462.2 ypg), first in scoring defense (11.4 ppg) and second in total defense (252.4 ypg), while UNH is ranked 32nd in scoring offense (32.0 ppg), 19th in total offense (450.9 ypg), 14th in scoring defense (20.9 ppg) and 74th in total defense (400.1 ypg). Plus, NDSU is favored by a whopping 20 1/2 points. But those numbers don’t really matter to the ’Cats.

“We’re kind of used to people always thinking that we’re the underdogs, but we’re just here to play football,” Asam said. “We’re a bunch of guys that love playing football and playing hard and we’re just going out there every Saturday, and every Friday, to try and get wins.”

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

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