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'Not the 'Nova of old, but still no pushover'

Last modified: 10/7/2011 12:00:00 AM
DURHAM - When New Hampshire and Villanova have met recently, stakes have been high. Playoff berths, league titles and national rankings have been on the line. The pair of Wildcats even met in the Football Championship Subdivision quarterfinals in 2009, the year Villanova won the national championship.

The stakes remain high for No. 6 New Hampshire (3-1) when it hosts Villanova today at noon at Cowell Stadium, but the Wildcats from Pennsylvania have started just 1-4 and won't be in the hunt for any playoffs or titles this season. They lost a ton to graduation (including four-year starting quarterback Chris Whitney), got hit by the injury bug (losing Whitney's heir apparent, redshirt freshman Dustin Thomas, in the second game), and lost their first three games by a combined score of 93-26.

'You're 1-4 and players are starting to feel that,' said Andy Talley, now in his 27th season as Villanova's head coach. 'So our job right now is to just maintain a toughness that we're trying to play with, a hardness that we're trying to play with and continue to bring these guys along,

because it doesn't get any easier if you're going down to New Hampshire this week.'

UNH, of course, is not treating this like your typical 1-4 team. Villanova is starting to improve, as witnessed by last week's tight, 20-16 loss to No. 9 William & Mary. Even Talley, who tends toward pessimism when it comes to his team, admitted his young Wildcats are getting better. And the memories from the recent meetings are too fresh for UNH to take 'Nova lightly. The players remember they needed a last-minute strip sack in the shadow of their own goalposts to secure last year's 31-24 win at Villanova, a game UNH had to have to keep its playoff hopes alive. They remember the 46-7 beatdown 'Nova dished out in the '09 playoff game, which came after New Hampshire beat Villanova in the regular season, 28-24 in Durham, Nova's only loss that season.

'Every time we play Villanova it's a tough game, a physical game, and I don't think this year will be any different,' UNH senior cornerback Kyle Flemings said. 'We have a little bit of a rivalry, so I think it's going to be a tough game.'

Still, it's a game New Hampshire should win. Villanova's offense is averaging just 14.4 points and 279.8 yards per game. Since taking over for Thomas, senior quarterback Christian Culicerto is only 48-for-87 (55.2 percent) for 549 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions. And it's hard for 'Nova to run the ball behind an undersized line with two true freshman and a sophomore starting on it. Talley said he hoped his team would hold William & Mary to under 20 points last week, because that's all he thought Villanova could score. He may have the same goal this week, but that's going to be difficult against a UNH team averaging 38.5 points and 425.5 yards per game.

'It's a young group that every now and then is going to misfire,' Talley said. 'In our league against the really good teams, in the critical situations, you need to be more consistent and we're just not there offensively.'

That's good news for a New Hampshire defense allowing 43.5 points and 523.5 yards per game. Those numbers should go down after today, especially if the UNH offense controls the clock with its ground game. Last year New Hampshire ran for 210 yards against 'Nova, 157 coming from Dontra Peters, and it may look to do the same today against a Villanova defense that is much smaller than last year's unit and has two true freshman starting at linebacker, Dillon Lucas and Joey Harmon.

Decker recognized

Just last month senior Kevin Decker was entering his first season as UNH's starting quarterback. Now he's on the watch list for the Walter Payton Award.

Decker and three others played their way onto the list, which was updated by The Sports Network on Tuesday, the first time changes have been made this season. Through four games Decker is 89-for-125 passing for 1,083 yards and 10 touchdowns, and he's UNH's second-leading rusher with 157 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns. He's ranked fifth in the nation in passing efficiency (169.59) and eighth in the nation and best in the CAA in total offense (310 yards per game).

Those gaudy numbers might just keep getting better for Decker, who has improved each week. He started the season by going 21-for-28 for 162 yards, one touchdown and one interception in a 58-22 loss at Toledo. Last week he put up career highs in completions (23), passing yards (352) and passing touchdowns (four), and didn't throw a pick, in the 39-32 win against Holy Cross.

'I think the thing that's improved is, if you watch the Toledo game he was trying to do too much,' UNH Coach Sean McDonnell said. '(In the last three games) he's done a great job, 90 percent of the time, taking what people give him ... and the great thing about Kevin is, he sees it, he understands it and he works hard to change it.'

Decker is carrying on a tradition at UNH, where the last two quarterbacks, R.J. Toman and Ricky Santos, were often on the Payton Watch List. Santos won the award as a junior in 2006 after finishing second in '05 in the closest vote in history. New Hampshire running back Jerry Azumah also won the Payton in 1998.

Returning Wildcats

Redshirt freshman receiver R.J. Harris has been reinstated after missing last week's game for breaking team rules. Harris led the Wildcats with 24 catches for 273 yards and three touchdowns before being suspended for last week's game. Safety Tre Williams, a redshirt freshman who was out last week with an injury, will also be back today.

Defensive fixings

The Wildcats gave up 531 yards and the 32 points last week to the Crusaders, but at least the point total was an improvement over the 58, 48 and 43 they gave up in the first three games.

'Defensively, as much as we want to be better and we want to get better, there have been signs of improvement,' McDonnell said. '(After the game) I said, 'We got it under 40 this week,' and it didn't get a lot of smiles from some people, but if you look at it (we're getting closer).'

The Wildcats are getting great production from linebacker Matt Evans, who is ranked No. 1 in the FCS with 15.75 tackles per game (63 total) and on the watch list for the Buck Buchanan Award (the defensive equivalent of the Payton). But the Wildcats' largely inexperienced secondary is still giving up too many big plays and their other Buchanan Award candidate, senior defensive end Brian McNally, has just 10 tackles and one sack through four games. Defenses have been helping on McNally and that's opened the way for the other end, James Jenkins, to make plays (he had three tackles for a loss against Holy Cross), but UNH still needs to find a way to put it all together.

'We knew that our defense was young, our secondary especially, and I think as long as we continue to improve and get better we'll be all right,' Flemings said. 'I think we've made tremendous strides from the beginning of the season, even back to fall camp, so we'll be all right.'

CAA tops

A record eight CAA teams are ranked in this week's The Sports Network/Fathead.com Top 25 - No. 6 UNH, No. 7 James Madison, No. 9 William & Mary, No. 13 Delaware, No. 14 Richmond, No. 19 Maine, No. 21 Old Dominion and No. 25 Towson. The CAA is also the only conference to ever have seven teams in the top 25 at the same time, and it had done that 14 different times.

(Tim O'Sullivan can be reached at 369-3371 or tosullivan@cmonitor.com.)


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