Gamble pays off for UNH in 29-28 win over Villanova

Last modified: 10/24/2013 1:03:18 AM
DURHAM – As he was making a decision with the game, and season, on the line, New Hampshire Coach Sean McDonnell received plenty of advice.

“Everyone was shouting, ‘Go for two, go for two,’ ” UNH junior Matt Kaplan said. “We came back from the dead, we’re 2-3, let’s go for two and get to 3-3 and keep living.”

McDonnell made the gutsy choice to go for two, Chris Setian shed a tackle in the backfield to get it with just 13.8 seconds left in the game, and the No. 25/23 New Hampshire football team kept its playoff hopes alive with a 29-28 victory over No. 12/11 Villanova yesterday at Cowell Stadium.

“Haven’t had a win like that in a long time … a come-from-behind, don’t-quit win, and I’m really proud of the team,” McDonnell said. “I did most of the things I did out there today because I trusted this team was going to find a way to win, and they did.”

While the season is just past the halfway point, it’s likely that a fourth loss would have killed UNH’s chances for making the FCS playoffs for a 10th straight year. The margin of error remains slim for New Hampshire (3-3), but the postseason is still a realistic goal.

“During the week of practice you could see the focus in everyone’s eyes. We were playing for our season,” said Franklin’s Kaplan, who had two drive-stopping sacks in the third quarter. “We didn’t want to be 2-4, but 3-3, we can just keep winning and take one game at a time.”

The season’s playoff hopes were about dead after Villanova (4-3) scored two touchdowns in a span of 46 seconds to take a 28-21 lead with 1:09 left in the game. But UNH got a 35-yard kickoff return from Dalton Crossan, plus 15 yards on a late-hit personal foul, to take over at the 50 with 1:02 on the clock. New Hampshire survived a fumble on an attempted hook-and-ladder play, got a pair of catches from Setian for 24 total yards, and then quarterback Sean Goldrich (21-for-28, 236 yards, touchdown) turned a broken play into a 4-yard touchdown scramble to pull his team within one, 28-27, with just under 14 seconds remaining.

That put the pressure on McDonnell to decide whether or not to go for two. He said the fact that kicker Mike MacArthur was already 0-for-2 on PATs (one blocked, one wide right) was “part of the equation,” and that offensive coordinator Ryan Carty “was pretty adamant” about going for the win.

“And I just felt, too, that if we were going to win it, we were going to win it there,” McDonell said. “Just felt like the momentum was there and I thought maybe they’d be a little bit on their heels.”

It turned out that Villanova was ready for Setian, but the senior captain bulled to the game-winning conversion anyway, capping a stellar day – career-high 88 yards on 12 carries and three catches for 28 yards.

“You can’t understand how awesome it is to have a kid like that in the backfield,” Goldrich said. “So when we put him in those situations, especially at the end of the game, I was confident he was going to get into the end zone.”

New Hampshire’s offense looked more nervous than confident in the first half. UNH didn’t score in the first quarter for the first time all year, and it needed a roughing-the-passer penalty to sustain its only scoring drive of the opening half, which ended with a 17-yard reverse from Crossan. Villanova took a 7-0 lead with 1:52 left in the first quarter on a 2-yard run from Kevin Monangai and then went up 14-6 midway through the second quarter after a 14-yard scoring run from quarterback John Robertson, who posted surreal numbers – 27 carries, 256 yards, three touchdowns on the ground, and 15-for-17 passing for 122 yards.

While Robertson seemed unstoppable for large chunks of the game, the UNH defense forced three straight punts (two courtesy of Kaplan’s sacks) on Villanova’s first three possessions of the second half. The New Hampshire offense, which Goldrich said managed to “calm down” at halftime, took advantage with three scores on its first three second-half possessions – a 6-yard touchdown run from Goldrich, a 23-yard field goal from MacArthur, and an 8-yard touchdown catch from Jared Allison (six receptions, 56 yards) to cap a 99-yard drive and give UNH a 21-14 lead with 5:03 left in the game.

Robertson turned into a one-man show on the ensuing drive, gaining all 70 yards on five carries, the last a 2-yard touchdown run on a fourth-and-goal with 1:55 remaining on the clock. The ’Nova defense then forced a three-and-out to give the ball back to Robertson, and three plays later the sophomore ripped off a 42-yard run to put his team up 28-21 with just 69 seconds left. But that happened to be plenty of time for UNH.

“John Robertson is a terrific football player, he did a hell of a job today and that last drive he took everything in his own hands,” McDonnell said. “But, and the big but is, our team found a way.”

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3341 or or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)

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