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Tim O’Sullivan: Resilient Wildcats live to play on

  • New Hampshire quarterback Sean Goldrich (5) celebrates with teammates after scoring the game-winning touchdown during the fourth quarter of an NCAA college football Division 1 championship quarterfinal game against Southeastern Louisiana in Hammond, La., Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013. New Hampshire won 20-17. (AP Photo/Jonathan Bachman)

    New Hampshire quarterback Sean Goldrich (5) celebrates with teammates after scoring the game-winning touchdown during the fourth quarter of an NCAA college football Division 1 championship quarterfinal game against Southeastern Louisiana in Hammond, La., Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013. New Hampshire won 20-17. (AP Photo/Jonathan Bachman)

  • New Hampshire offensive linesman Rob Bowman (78) celebrates with the New Hampshire state flag after winning an NCAA college football Division 1 championship quarterfinal game against Southeastern Louisianain Hammond, La., Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013. New Hampshire won 20-17. (AP Photo/Jonathan Bachman)

    New Hampshire offensive linesman Rob Bowman (78) celebrates with the New Hampshire state flag after winning an NCAA college football Division 1 championship quarterfinal game against Southeastern Louisianain Hammond, La., Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013. New Hampshire won 20-17. (AP Photo/Jonathan Bachman)

  • New Hampshire defensive tackle Sean McCann (58) pursues Southeastern Louisiana quarterback Bryan Bennett (3)during the second half of an NCAA college football Division 1 championship quarterfinal game in Hammond, La., Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013. New Hampshire won 20-17. (AP Photo/Jonathan Bachman)

    New Hampshire defensive tackle Sean McCann (58) pursues Southeastern Louisiana quarterback Bryan Bennett (3)during the second half of an NCAA college football Division 1 championship quarterfinal game in Hammond, La., Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013. New Hampshire won 20-17. (AP Photo/Jonathan Bachman)

  • New Hampshire defensive end Jay Colbert (55) celebrates after winning an NCAA college football Division 1 championship quarterfinal game against Southeastern Louisiana in Hammond, La., Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013. New Hampshire won 20-17. (AP Photo/Jonathan Bachman)

    New Hampshire defensive end Jay Colbert (55) celebrates after winning an NCAA college football Division 1 championship quarterfinal game against Southeastern Louisiana in Hammond, La., Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013. New Hampshire won 20-17. (AP Photo/Jonathan Bachman)

  • New Hampshire quarterback Sean Goldrich (5) runs with the ball during the first half of an NCAA college football Division 1 championship quarterfinal game against Southeastern Louisiana in Hammond, La., Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013. New Hampshire won 20-17. (AP Photo/Jonathan Bachman)

    New Hampshire quarterback Sean Goldrich (5) runs with the ball during the first half of an NCAA college football Division 1 championship quarterfinal game against Southeastern Louisiana in Hammond, La., Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013. New Hampshire won 20-17. (AP Photo/Jonathan Bachman)

  • New Hampshire safety Daniel Rowe (45) celebrates with his team after winning an NCAA college football Division 1 championship quarterfinal game against Southeastern Louisiana in Hammond, La., Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013. New Hampshire won 20-17. (AP Photo/Jonathan Bachman)

    New Hampshire safety Daniel Rowe (45) celebrates with his team after winning an NCAA college football Division 1 championship quarterfinal game against Southeastern Louisiana in Hammond, La., Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013. New Hampshire won 20-17. (AP Photo/Jonathan Bachman)

  • New Hampshire quarterback Sean Goldrich (5) runs past Southeastern Louisiana defensive lineman A.J. Bowen (45) during the first half of an NCAA college football Division 1 championship quarterfinal game against Southeastern Louisiana in Hammond, La., Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013. New Hampshire won 20-17. (AP Photo/Jonathan Bachman)

    New Hampshire quarterback Sean Goldrich (5) runs past Southeastern Louisiana defensive lineman A.J. Bowen (45) during the first half of an NCAA college football Division 1 championship quarterfinal game against Southeastern Louisiana in Hammond, La., Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013. New Hampshire won 20-17. (AP Photo/Jonathan Bachman)

  • New Hampshire running back Nico Steriti (22) throws the ball past Southeastern Louisiana linebacker Dereck Robinson (58) during the second half of an NCAA college football Division 1 championship quarterfinal game in Hammond, La., Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013. New Hampshire won 20-17. (AP Photo/Jonathan Bachman)

    New Hampshire running back Nico Steriti (22) throws the ball past Southeastern Louisiana linebacker Dereck Robinson (58) during the second half of an NCAA college football Division 1 championship quarterfinal game in Hammond, La., Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013. New Hampshire won 20-17. (AP Photo/Jonathan Bachman)

  • New Hampshire quarterback Sean Goldrich (5) celebrates with teammates after scoring the game-winning touchdown during the fourth quarter of an NCAA college football Division 1 championship quarterfinal game against Southeastern Louisiana in Hammond, La., Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013. New Hampshire won 20-17. (AP Photo/Jonathan Bachman)
  • New Hampshire offensive linesman Rob Bowman (78) celebrates with the New Hampshire state flag after winning an NCAA college football Division 1 championship quarterfinal game against Southeastern Louisianain Hammond, La., Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013. New Hampshire won 20-17. (AP Photo/Jonathan Bachman)
  • New Hampshire defensive tackle Sean McCann (58) pursues Southeastern Louisiana quarterback Bryan Bennett (3)during the second half of an NCAA college football Division 1 championship quarterfinal game in Hammond, La., Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013. New Hampshire won 20-17. (AP Photo/Jonathan Bachman)
  • New Hampshire defensive end Jay Colbert (55) celebrates after winning an NCAA college football Division 1 championship quarterfinal game against Southeastern Louisiana in Hammond, La., Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013. New Hampshire won 20-17. (AP Photo/Jonathan Bachman)
  • New Hampshire quarterback Sean Goldrich (5) runs with the ball during the first half of an NCAA college football Division 1 championship quarterfinal game against Southeastern Louisiana in Hammond, La., Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013. New Hampshire won 20-17. (AP Photo/Jonathan Bachman)
  • New Hampshire safety Daniel Rowe (45) celebrates with his team after winning an NCAA college football Division 1 championship quarterfinal game against Southeastern Louisiana in Hammond, La., Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013. New Hampshire won 20-17. (AP Photo/Jonathan Bachman)
  • New Hampshire quarterback Sean Goldrich (5) runs past Southeastern Louisiana defensive lineman A.J. Bowen (45) during the first half of an NCAA college football Division 1 championship quarterfinal game against Southeastern Louisiana in Hammond, La., Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013. New Hampshire won 20-17. (AP Photo/Jonathan Bachman)
  • New Hampshire running back Nico Steriti (22) throws the ball past Southeastern Louisiana linebacker Dereck Robinson (58) during the second half of an NCAA college football Division 1 championship quarterfinal game in Hammond, La., Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013. New Hampshire won 20-17. (AP Photo/Jonathan Bachman)

They refused to let six losses in their last six trips to the quarterfinals get them down. They overcame a 1-3 start to their season. And the Wildcats wouldn’t let an early deficit, a late deficit, a pile of missed opportunities or their opponent’s best shots keep them down last night.

Instead, the resilient New Hampshire football team punched its way into the FCS semifinals for the first time in school history with a thrilling 20-17 quarterfinal win at No. 7 Southeastern Louisiana (11-3). After losing in the quarterfinals in 2004, ’05, ’06, ’08, ’09 and ’10, the Wildcats finally got one.

“We always expected to do it, we always wanted to do it, and now we’ve done it,” UNH Coach Sean McDonnell said.

No. 15 New Hampshire (10-4) will travel to top-ranked, undefeated, two-time defending champion North Dakota State (13-0) on Friday for the semifinals. It’s a trip that seemed unthinkable back on Oct. 5 when the Wildcats lost to Towson, 44-28, and fell to 1-3. But the ’Cats pulled themselves together after that, winning nine of their next 10 games to push themselves into uncharted territory.

And the ’Cats had to pull themselves together last night after Southeastern scored with just 5:17 left in the game to take a 17-14 lead. Instead of opting for a potential game-tying field goal on fourth-and-goal from the UNH 5, SLU Coach Ron Roberts chose to go for the touchdown, and Lions quarterback Bryan Bennett rewarded Roberts with a magician’s touchdown.

Bennett pulled himself out of the grasp of one New Hampshire defender, slipped away from another, and just avoided a third before finding Marquis Fruge’ in the back corner of the end zone. For football fans in this area, it may have kindled unkind memories of Eli Manning to David Tyree. It was the kind of miracle play that might have spelled the end for most football teams. But not these Wildcats.

“You got the kid sacked on the fourth down, but you could just see still in our kids’ eyes that they wanted to keep fighting, and they did,” McDonnell said.

They fought back with a 14-play, 80-yard drive that included a conversion on fourth-and-1 and ended with 47 seconds left on the clock with a 2-yard touchdown run from quarterback Sean Goldrich, who finished the night with 21 rushes for 99 yards and all three of UNH’s touchdowns to go along with his 24-for-35 passing for 276 yards.

“What a roller coaster,” McDonnell said.

The Wildcats added a little extra speed to that coaster ride when they botched the extra point after that last touchdown and kept the Lions within three points. But the UNH defense kept the Lions out of field goal range and snuffed out a series of last-gasp laterals to seal the win.

It was fitting those Wildcat defenders were on the field to end things, because they were the ones who spurred New Hampshire’s surge during the second half of the season, and they were the ones who kept absorbing the big blows from Southeastern during the first half.

The teams traded touchdowns on the first two drives of the game, and the Lions looked ready to maintain that scoring pace after Xavier Roberson’s 71-yard kickoff return gave them the ball at the UNH 29. But the Wildcats held firm, ending that drive with a Steven Thames interception on their own 8.

Southeastern’s special teams gave the Lions more good field position later in the first quarter when Devante Scott returned a punt 41 yards to the New Hampshire 28. Again the UNH defense rose to the occasion, this time forcing SLU into a 37-yard field goal attempt, which Seth Sebastian missed wide left.

“It was really good to see our kids just walk out there and say, ‘We’re playing, they ain’t in the end zone yet,’ ” McDonnell said. “And then we had those two stops inside (the red zone) and those were just huge.”

Not only did the Wildcats have to overcome big plays from Southeastern, they had to overcome big misses from themselves. They could have built a comfortable, two-score lead in the first half, but instead they had two 15-play drives end in blocked field goals and had to settle for a 14-7 halftime advantage. And UNH could have built a seven- or even 11-point lead early in the fourth quarter when it drove the ball to the Southeastern 3, but Goldrich threw an interception in the end zone.

Those are more plays that so often equal disaster for teams, the kind of missed opportunities that almost always seem to add up to losses. But after years of fighting their way up the mountain, years of just missing out on the ultimate goal, these Wildcats have learned how to pick themselves up off the mat. They proved it this season, they proved it again last night, and now they’ll get a chance to prove it on the biggest football stage the school has ever seen.

“I’m so proud of these kids and the way they just kept battling, and they just want to keep playing,” McDonnell said. “And now we’re one game away from playing for the national championship, so this is something pretty special.”

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

Legacy Comments1

Better fix that kicking game fast

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