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UNH bows out at the hands of the Bison, 52-14

North Dakota State running back John Crockett (23) eludes New Hampshire defender Hayden Knudson (46) during the first half of an NCAA Football Championship Subdivision semifinal game on Friday, Dec. 20, 2013, at the Fargodome in Fargo, N.D. (AP Photo/Bruce Crummy)

North Dakota State running back John Crockett (23) eludes New Hampshire defender Hayden Knudson (46) during the first half of an NCAA Football Championship Subdivision semifinal game on Friday, Dec. 20, 2013, at the Fargodome in Fargo, N.D. (AP Photo/Bruce Crummy)

New Hampshire had never played football at this level. And unfortunately for the Wildcats, they looked out of place when they got there.

UNH’s 10-year streak of reaching the FCS playoffs is the longest in the country. And the ’Cats have been to seven quarterfinals during that stretch. But they may want to forget their first-ever trip to the FCS semifinals, last night’s 52-14 loss to No. 1 North Dakota State University (14-0).

To be fair to No. 15 UNH (10-5), NDSU has made a lot of teams look bad for a long time. The Bison are the two-time defending champions and have now won 23 straight games. Their quarterback, Brock Jensen, is 46-5 as a starter, which gives him more wins than any quarterback in FCS history. They won their first 13 games this season by an average of 26.6 points, and just last week they dismantled Coastal Carolina in the quarterfinals, 48-14.

So last night’s final score isn’t exactly a shock. But considering the way the game began, it sure didn’t seem like it would end that way.

The Wildcats knew they needed a fast start, and that’s exactly what they got. On just the third play from a scrimmage, a mere 1:23 into the game, Steven Thames picked off Jensen and returned it 38 yards for a touchdown.

It felt like a statement, a play that didn’t just give the Wildcats the lead, but one that gave them belief. And the ’Cats rode that belief on the next series when they forced another quick turnover. It took only two plays this time as Rashid Armand forced a fumble and Casey DeAndrade scooped it up, giving the Wildcats the ball at the NDSU 29.

Fast start? How about two turnovers in 2:15 and a 7-0 lead against the two-time defending champs. It’s hard to imagine the ’Cats speeding any faster. And at that point it also was hard to imagine New Hampshire would suffer the same fate as Coastal Carolina the week before, when the Bison built a 34-7 halftime lead before mopping up in the second half. But that’s exactly what happened.

The Wildcats couldn’t convert that second turnover into any points, and just like that, the early belief and momentum vanished. And the Bison didn’t need to use any magic or trickery to make it disappear.

Just like the ’Cats knew they needed a fast start, they also knew North Dakota State was going to come after them with a power running attack complemented by play-action passing and a smothering defense backed by a boisterous crowd. But it didn’t matter what the Wildcats knew, or what they had seen NDSU do to Coastal Carolina the week before, they simply couldn’t stop it from happening.

Jensen (11-for-21, 146 yards, three touchdowns) found his favorite receiver, Zach Vraa, for a 50-yard touchdown to tie the score at 7-7. Darrick Lang found himself all alone after a play-action fake to make it 17-7. The noise in the Fargodome, which UNH tried to simulate during its week of practice, helped with the next score when New Hampshire quarterback Sean Goldrich wasn’t ready for the snap, and that turned into a fumble return for a touchdown by defensive end Leevon Perry.

The final first-half touchdown came when Jensen hit tight end Kevin Vaadeland on a 20-yard play-action pass. It was another thing the Wildcats had to know was coming – seven of Vaadeland’s 17 previous catches had gone for touchdowns – but it was another thing they couldn’t stop. So the game that had started so promising was a 31-7 romp by halftime.

As good as the North Dakota State offense looked in that first half, it was actually the defense that swung the early momentum, and that was no surprise, either. The Bison have been slowing teams down better than any other defense in the FCS all year. They came into the game ranked first in scoring defense (11.4 points per game) and second in total defense (252.4 yards per game) and they showed UNH exactly how they did it.

The Wildcats gained only 61 total yards in the first half and were 0-for-7 on third downs, another category where NDSU led the nation. During UNH’s first three playoff wins this year, Goldrich was in total control of the offense, making quick and smart decisions at all the right times. But the swarming Bison gave him no time to think and no room to throw or run.

Goldrich was a mere 6-for-14 passing for 32 yards in the first half, and he gained just 11 yards on 10 carries. His numbers by the end of the game – 13-for-26 for 117 yards, 21 rushes for 19 yards – didn’t look much better. UNH’s 1,000-yard receiver, Justin Mello, was held to two catches for 19 yards. UNH’s 1,000-yard running back, Nico Steriti, was held to six carries for 7 yards. On the other side, the Bison ran for 350 yards and three touchdowns on 42 carries.

After starting the season 1-3, the Wildcats showed great resilience by winning six of their last seven games to reach the playoffs. They displayed that quality again last week when they scored a last-minute touchdown to beat Southeastern Louisiana, 20-17. But it didn’t matter how resilient the ’Cats were, or what they knew was coming, there was no coming back against North Dakota State.

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

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