UNH upsets No. 4 Central Arkansas, 21-15, in FCS playoffs

  • University of New Hampshire’s Evan Horn (33) takes down a Central Arkansas player during the second round of the FCS playoffs in Conway, Ark., on Saturday. Horn finished with five tackles and a key interception for the Wildcats in a 21-15 win over the Bears. Josh Goff / UCA Athletics

  • TOP: University of New Hampshire’s Alonzo Addae (41), Jared Kuehl (58) and Evan Horn (33) team up to tackle Central Arkansas receiver Roman Gordon (4) during Saturday’s FCS second-round playoff game in Conway, Ark. BELOW: UNH redshirt freshman Christian Lupoli (5) winds up to throw for the Wildcats during the team’s win over Central Arkansas. Lupoli finished 8 of 10 passing with 63 yards and a touchdown. UNH defeated No. 4 Central Arkansas, 21-15. Josh Goff photos / UCA Athletics

  • Christian Lupoli (5) winds up to throw for the University of New Hampshire during the team’s 21-15 win over Central Arkansas in the second round of the FCS playoffs. Lupoli finished 8 of 10 passing with 63 yards and a touchdown. Josh Goff / UCA Athletics

Monitor staff
Saturday, December 02, 2017

By the end, the New Hampshire defense had rocked Central Arkansas.

Roman Gordon caught two passes in the first three plays of UCA’s final drive, and then staggered off the field after absorbing a hit from Alonzo Addae and D’Andre Drummond-Mayrie. On the next play, Rick Holt sacked Hayden Hildebrand, the Southland Conference Player of the Year who was sacked just six times all season.

On Saturday, UNH dropped Hildebrand five times. The fifth one ended that final drive, the game and Central Arkansas’ season. Six plays after Holt’s sack, Jae’Wuan Horton sacked and stripped Hildebrand, Jared Kuehl recovered the fumble and the No. 21/20 Wildcats sealed a 21-15 second-round FCS playoff upset against the fourth-seeded Bears.

“Our job was to just make (Hildebrand) as uncomfortable as possible back there, and I think we did a really good job of doing that today,” said Holt, the senior from Portsmouth who owned the trenches with a team-high nine tackles and 2 ½ sacks

Not only did UNH (9-4) punish the Bears physically and hold them to 22.6 points below their average, the Wildcat defenders also scored on Central Arkansas (10-2) when New Hampshire needed it most. With UNH quarterback Trevor Knight injured and out of the game and the Bears gaining momentum against his backup, redshirt freshman Christian Lupoli, Kuehl tipped a pass that Evan Horn intercepted and returned 56 yards for a touchdown.

That was the biggest one, but Horn’s pick was just one of four turnovers forced by UNH against a Central Arkansas team that had coughed it up only 10 times all season.

Holt tipped a pass that Steven Harper intercepted with the Bears on the UNH 30 in the second quarter. Central Arkansas was driving again in the third when Addae (seven tackles) ripped the ball away from Carlos Blackman and recovered on the UNH 35. Horn’s interception came on UCA’s next possession, and the final turnover came on its final possession after the strip from Horton (five tackles, two sacks) and the recovery from Kuehl (five tackles, four solo).

“Jae’Wuan forced it, the quarterback went to try and get on it and I ripped it from him,” Holt said. “Jared Kuehl recovered and a lot of people started jumping in after that, it was kind of a crazy pile and ... that was pretty much the game.”

Before the swaggering and swarming New Hampshire defense closed the game with big plays, it made a solid opening statement. The Wildcats were two-touchdown underdogs against Central Arkansas, which was riding a 10-game winning streak, but the UNH defense forced a punt on the game’s first series and showed it would not be blown off the purple-striped Estes Field in Conway, Ark.

“Every game the first series or two you get a feel for the guys out there, and like Coach Mac said, a lot of people didn’t think we had a chance to be up there against them, but we knew we played in a pretty good league and once we got out there a little bit ... we knew right there that we’re going to be in this game,” Holt said, using the ubiquitous nickname for Sean McDonnell, the head coach who has led UNH to 14 straight playoff appearances.

Central Arkansas did strike first when running back Cedric Battle got behind the UNH defense for a 74-yard touchdown catch early in the first quarter. But New Hampshire responded immediately with a 16-play scoring drive. Knight executed a well-designed play for a 10-yard touchdown pass to Evan Gray to tie things at 7-7 after the UNH offensive line and ground game powered the drive, which included a pair of tough fourth-down conversions from Gray (24 carries, 85 yards). The Wildcats averaged just 45.7 rushing yards in their last three games, but they ran for 106 yards on Saturday.

The score was still tied when Juan Jackson picked off Knight with nine minutes left in the second quarter. Knight was injured on the play and did not return, which meant redshirt freshman Lupoli had to play his first big college minutes under the pressure of the playoffs.

Coming in, Lupoli was just 3-for-14 for 16 yards and an interception in six appearances. But he marched the Wildcats to the UCA 11 on his first drive Saturday and he finished the game 8-for-10 for 63 yards and a touchdown.

“Coach Mac always preaches next man up mentality,” Lupoli said. “In practice we have a lot of sudden snap drills where things happen and we got to go in and make plays.”

Lupoli did have trouble with a snap early in the fourth. After Horn’s interception return gave New Hampshire a 14-7 lead with 7:31 left in the third, Lupoli dropped a snap in the end zone, fell on it and was sacked there for a safety to make it 14-9. But the freshman from East Haven, Conn., bounced back later in the fourth when he threw a nine-yard touchdown pass to Malik Love, who made a remarkable catch to give UNH a 21-9 lead with 7:19 to go in the game.

“I believed in Christian before he even had the opportunity,” said Love, who finished with five catches for 50 yards. “I knew as soon as his name was called that he was going to go in there and do the job.”

Central Arkansas gave itself some hope when Battle got free for another long touchdown catch out of the backfield on the next drive, making it a one-score game at 21-15. But UNH chewed up some clock on the ground on the following possession, and then the New Hampshire pass rush bullied the game to an end.

“Terrific effort by my guys,” McDonnell said. “They just played their tails off.”

Next up for the traveling ‘Cats is a trip to fifth-seeded South Dakota State (10-2), which advanced with a 37-22 win against Northern Iowa on Saturday. It will be UNH’s fourth quarterfinal appearance since 2010.

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