Defense led the way for UNH’s win against FBS Georgia Southern

Sunday, September 10, 2017

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Last week, University of New Hampshire football coach Sean McDonnell reminisced when asked about his team’s 2004 win at Georgia Southern University and called it one of the best victories in his 19-year tenure as the man in charge of the Wildcats.

Saturday, his Wildcats went out and knocked off Georgia Southern again – this time by a score of 22-12 at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala., when the site had to be changed because of Hurricane Irma – for another signature triumph for the program.

“The kids just played,” said McDonnell, back in the office on Sunday afternoon. “They didn’t worry about anything but playing football and that was a good thing. I think our kids expected to win and believed they could win.”

Then there's the rest of the story.

“The biggest thing for the kids is understanding the 24-hour thing,” McDonnell said. “We’ve got to wipe this one clean. Now we’re heading into the heart of the FCS part of our schedule. We’ll talk today and then start to get ready for our next one.”

UNH plays at Holy Cross on Saturday at 1 p.m.

Last year, the Wildcats came from behind and then held off the Crusaders, 39-28, to open the new Wildcat Stadium with a bang.

McDonnell’s team will take a 2-0 record into game three of the season for the first time since 2009.

That was also the last year UNH beat the FBS team on its schedule. Teams at the FCS level such as UNH often step up for a game against an FBS team and earn a cash payment for going on the road to play the contest.

The Wildcats opened the 2009 season with a home win over St. Francis and then beat Ball State, an FBS team, on the road, 23-16.

This year’s group of seniors had lost their FBS games to Central Michigan when they were true freshmen and then Toledo, San Jose State and San Diego State.

“My whole career we’ve never beaten one of these FBS teams,” said defensive tackle Rick Holt. “No disrespect to Georgia Southern, but they just moved up a couple of years ago and we thought we kind of had a chance. We also got them away from their home field. Then we came out and executed pretty well. It’s huge for us to finally end that drought. It’s a huge win for all of us when we can come back later and have a win over an FBS team. No one can take that away from us.”

There was much to like in the manner the Wildcats won, too.

They did it with no turnovers and with a fast start that turned into a 22-0 lead at the half.

They did it with a big game from junior wide receiver Neil O’Connor – he had 11 of the team’s 13 pass receptions and scored a pair of touchdowns on passes from junior quarterback Trevor Knight - with fellow wide receiver Malik Love sidelined with a hamstring injury.

They did it with a team effort on defense against a team that loves to run the ball, after they had a tough time with their tackling against Maine.

And they did it while showcasing new dark blue helmets with a throwback NH decal on the side for the first time.

“I thought we did a good job of securing the football,” McDonnell said. “We played decently on special teams and on defense we kept the ball inside and in front of us most of game. They had one long quarterback run late, but in everything else we contained the run game pretty much. We tackled well in open space and kept the ball inside.”

The coach liked the effort overall.

“The kids did what we asked them to do on both sides of the ball and I thought we played real hard again,” McDonnell said. “I was real proud of the way we played. We played smart and did all of the things we needed to do to win a tough game on the road.”

McDonnell cited the play of a crew of safeties that included sophomore Rick Ellison, senior D’Andre Drummond-Mayrie, sophomore Pop Lacey, redshirt freshman Evan Horn and senior Geno Miller and defensive ends junior Jae’Wuan Horton, sophomore Josh Kania and redshirt freshman and Brian Carter in particular.

“I thought it was a real good team effort on defense,” McDonnell said. “Guys picked each other up.”

And those new helmets?

Holt and McDonnell said the players loved them and were excited about breaking them out.

“I’m a firm believer it’s what’s inside the helmet and the uniform that makes all the difference,” McDonnell said with a laugh. “I’m much more worried about that.”

And no, he’s not sure when they will return.

“I don’t have any idea,” McDonnell said. “But I know one thing. We’re 1-0 in them. I’m sure we’ll wear them at least one more time.”

By the numbers

O’Connor accounted for 11 of UNH’s 13 catches and 118 of the team’s 129 passing yards.

Carter had a fumble recovery and sophomore Isiah Perkins had an interception.

It was the second career pick for Perkins.

The Wildcats created the two turnovers and did not turn the ball over themselves.

Ellison led UNH tacklers with 10.

Kania and sophomore linebacker Quinlen Dean each had nine tackles.

Holt had seven tackles.

Dean, Holt, Drummond-Mayrie, Horton and Michael Balsamo each had one of UNH’s five quarterback sacks.

Holt leads the Wildcats with two sacks in two games.

Georgia Southern quarterback Shai Werts was 11 for 22 passing for 93 yards and one interception. He carried 31 times for 124 yards.

UNH sophomore punter Drew Sanborn stepped out of the back of the end zone late in the third period to give Georgia Southern a safety and two points to make the score 22-5. The move helped the Wildcats out in field position.

Home cooking

UNH’s next game in Wildcat Stadium is Homecoming on Sept. 23 against Rhode Island at 3:30 p.m.

The Wildcats follow up the Rhode Island game with a home game against Bryant on Sept. 30 at 6 p.m.

UNH’s other two regular season home games are Oct. 21 against Towson at 2 p.m. and on Nov. 11 against Elon at 2 p.m.

Next up: Holy Cross

The Wildcats play at Holy Cross next Saturday at 1 p.m. on Fitton Field in Worcester, Mass.

UNH knocked off Holy Cross, 39-28, in the first game ever in Wildcat Stadium last year.

A crowd of 13,242 attended the game, which was the largest for a UNH home opener until 15,854 came to this year’s season-opening win over Maine.

Holy Cross, after giving FBS foe UConn a major score in its opener, bounced back to beat Patriot League rival Bucknell, 20-0, on the road Saturday.

Senior quarterback Peter Pujals won the New England Gold Helmet for his efforts in the 27-20 defeat at UConn.

He completed 33 of his 56 passes for 358 yards and a touchdown in that game.

Against Bucknell, Pujals was 16 for 33 for 178 yards and a couple of scores and also threw two interceptions.

Senior Diquan Walker ran 10 times for 72 yards and two scores against Bucknell.

The Holy Cross defense allowed Bucknell just 76 yards rushing and 214 yards of total offense.

The Crusaders created and recovered three Bucknell fumbles and also had an interception.

Holy Cross had no turnovers against Bucknell.

Pujals put up big numbers against UNH last year.

He completed 42 of his 64 passes for 427 yards and three scores.

He also two interceptions in the game.

Casey DeAndrade had the second interception and turned it into a 28-yard touchdown return to seal the game late.

Knight completed 11 of his 18 passes for 190 yards and two scores against Holy Cross last season