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UNH football team prepares for the noise of North Dakota State’s dome

DURHAM – These Wildcats have been around. In just the last four years, New Hampshire has played postseason games in Daytona Beach, Fla., Bozeman, Mont., Spartanburg, S.C., and Hammond, La. But the ’Cats are in for a unique experience tomorrow night when they take on No. 1 North Dakota State (13-0) in the FCS semifinals in the Fargodome.

“Our kids are not going to forget the noise and the environment they’re going to be in because it’s so intimate, so up close and personal that you can’t replicate anything close,” UNH Coach Sean McDonnell said, “so it will be awesome.

That doesn’t mean McDonnell hasn’t been trying to replicate the expected atmosphere in the 115,000-square foot Fargodome, which can seat 18,700 for a football game. The No. 15 Wildcats (10-4) have been practicing indoors at the NH Sportsplex in Bedford this week and piping in music to try and simulate the crowd noise.

“Things are a little different this week,” New Hampshire quarterback Sean Goldrich said. “We’re playing some music in the background so you can’t really communicate, you’ve got to get really close when you’re talking to one another. And apparently from what I’m hearing this practice environment that we have is nothing compared to what we’re going to be up against, so we’re just trying to prepare as well as we can with what we’ve got and just hope for the best.”

The Wildcats received a first-hand account of the Fargodome atmosphere from Lehigh Coach Andy Coen, whose team played there in the 2011 playoffs. The noise level in the stadium on that day reached a reported 111 decibels. McDonnell said that Coen told him “it is going to be louder than anything you’ve ever, ever, ever imagined, but … it’s going to be an unbelievable experience for your kids.”

Making checks on offense and defense will be a challenge for UNH, as will the timing for offensive shifts and motions. Plus, the two-time defending champion Bison are 9-0 in the Fargodome in the FCS playoffs, including last week’s impressive 48-14 win over Coastal Carolina in front of 18,219 fans.

These are very real concerns for the Wildcats. But their previous experiences in far-flung environments will help them tomorrow night, and now they get to add another locale to that impressive list of venues.

“Our kids have been places, not that they’ve been there done that, but the familiarity of it is good instead of the ‘Wow.’ But I still love the ‘Wow.’ I love the ‘Wow’ more than anything,” McDonnell said . “And we’re going to get a ‘Wow’ when we go to Fargo, but it’s going to be the greatest ‘Wow’ that you can get. It’s not a scared ‘Wow,’ it’s like, ‘Wow, this is Christmas.’ ”

CAA tough

The ’Cats understand that North Dakota State, 24-1 in the last two seasons, represents a monumental challenge. McDonnell said the Bison have a defense like William & Mary and an offense like Towson, “the best defense in our league and the best, most physical offense in our league.”

The advantage that UNH has is that it faced William & Mary and Towson this year. Sure, the ’Cats lost both those games, but they are a better team because of it.

“I think it’s probably the most important element of having success in the playoffs, is what you do during the regular season and who you play,” McDonnell said. “If you take a good look at it, most of our teams played a Division I (FBS) opponent. Most of our teams have beaten a Division I opponent over the course of time. The second thing is that from top to bottom, this league is the best football league in the country. I firmly believe that.”

The fact that there are two CAA teams in the FCS Final Four – No. 5 Towson (12-2) plays at No. 3 Eastern Washington (12-2) on Saturday – backs up McDonnell’s belief. But North Dakota State’s Missouri Valley Conference has a case to make for itself, too. According to the Gridiron Power Index, a top indicator for determining at-large FCS playoff berths, the MVC is the top conference with a 27.11 ranking. The CAA is No. 2 at 34.23, just ahead of the Southland (35.46), the conference that produced Southeastern Louisiana, the team that UNH beat last week in the quarterfinals, 20-17.

Of course it doesn’t really matter which conference is better. What does matter is that both teams have been well-prepared to put on a show tomorrow night.

“What we always say here is they haven’t played a team like us yet,” UNH senior captain and safety Manny Asam said. “And obviously we haven’t played a team like them yet. So I think it’s going to be two teams coming together this week to play hard and it’s going to be a war.”

Coaching change

Tomorrow night’s game could be the last at North Dakota State for Coach Craig Bohl, who has already agreed to take over at Wyoming next season. Bohl, who played at Nebraska from 1977-79, has been the head man at NDSU since 2003, compiling a 102-32 record. He became the first repeat winner of the Eddie Robinson FCS Coach of the Year Award on Monday, earning the distinction for a second straight year.

Bohl will be replaced by Chris Kleiman, who has been an NDSU assistant for three years, the last two as the defensive coordinator.

Extra points

∎ While this is the first time UNH has reached the FCS semifinals, it is not the school’s first national football semifinal. The Wildcats reached the Division II semifinals in 1975 where they lost to Western Kentucky, 14-3. McDonnell, then a sophomore at UNH, was a starting defensive back on that team.

∎ North Dakota State’s last loss came on Oct. 13, 2012, when Indiana State won at the Fargodome, 17-13.

∎ Not only have the Bison won the last two FCS titles, they also won five D-II titles (1983, ’85, ’86, ’88 and ’90) and three College Division (which became D-II) national championships (1965, ’68 and ’69).

∎ UNH’s Nico Steriti and Justin Mello both passed the 1,000-yard mark last week. Steriti, a junior running back, now has 1,021 rushing yards for the season and Mello, a senior receiver, now has 1,020 receiving yards. It’s just the second time in school history that UNH has had a 1,000-yard rusher and a 1,000-yard receiver in the same season. The last time it happened was 1993 with receiver David Gamble and running back Avrom Smith.

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