UNH football stymies Central Connecticut to reach second round of FCS Championship

  • University of New Hampshire linebacker Jared Kuehl (58) drags down Central Connecticut quarterback Tanner Kingsley on Saturday during the Wildcats’ 14-0 win in the first round of the FCS Championship. Joey Walker photos / UNH Athletics

  • UNH linebacker Quinlen Dean (54) looks upfield after hauling in one of the Wildcats’ three picks on Saturday during the postseason win.

Monitor staff
Sunday, November 26, 2017

DURHAM – It began with a bitter loss to Albany, was boosted when they received an at-large berth to the tournament and ended with all eyes on Central Arkansas.

It’s been anything but a dull week for the University of New Hampshire football team. After sneaking into the NCAA Division I FCS Championship to extend their nation-best streak to 14 straight years, the Wildcats more importantly extended their season on Saturday afternoon.

Led by a defensive unit that forced four turnovers, three sacks and limited No. 8 Central Connecticut State University to 248 total yards, UNH sent the fans home happy at Wildcat Stadium with a 14-0 shutout win over the Blue Devils.

“We just didn’t have enough offense,” Central Connecticut Coach Pete Rossomando said after the Blue Devils (8-4) had their eight-game winning streak snapped. “I don’t think we played great up front today and we needed to play outstanding football up front and we just didn’t do that.”

Despite three interceptions, a fumble recovery and a dominating margin in time of possession, UNH was never able to gain a comfortable advantage against the depleted NEC champs who were playing without starting quarterback Jacob Dolegala due to suspension.

The Wildcats (8-4) ran 80 plays to Central Connecticut’s 55, possessed the ball for 37:22 and outgained the Blue Devils in the air, 308-118. But it was still a one-score game with less than two minutes to play before Evan Gray punched in a short TD run to make it 14-0 with 1:04 remaining.

The biggest factor that prevented UNH from pulling away was special teams. The Wildcats missed three field goals – one blocked for a lengthy return – and struggled to pick up yardage on the ground in a game that wasn’t pretty, but the Wildcats and Coach Sean McDonnell will take as they prepare for No. 4 Central Arkansas in the second round on Saturday.

“Obviously it was a hard-fought game and I thought both teams played very well on the defensive side of the football. I thought our defense did a lot of good things out there,” said McDonnell, who improved to 5-0 against Central Connecticut with UNH. “I think we have to improve the kicking a little bit, got some work to do, but – and here’s the big but – we’re going to Arkansas next Saturday and we’re one of the 16 teams playing in the country.”

UNH opened things up with a lengthy 20-play, 78-yard drive to start the game, but it went unrewarded after missing a 38-yard field goal attempt.

Then it was Central Connecticut and sophomore Tanner Kingsley’s turn. The young signal-caller entered the contest with just 13 passing attempts on the season and had not completed a pass since Sept. 23.

Kingsley, though, fired off a 41-yard completion to Jose Garcia on the Blue Devils’ first offensive play before the drive fizzled out when Jared Kuehl (seven tackles, fumble recovery) picked him off in the end zone.

Kingsley finished 9 of 16 for 118 yards and two interceptions before going down early in the fourth quarter with a right shoulder injury. Already on their backup, the Blue Devils were forced to use running back Drew Jean-Guillaume under center in a wildcat package.

“We stayed in that wildcat package and moved the high school quarterback back there for that last drive, moved the ball a little but just too little, too late,” Rossomando said.

“I definitely felt like I was ready,” Kingsley said. “Coach prepared me all week and I just wanted to do whatever I could to help this team win and we just came up short today.”

On the other end, Trevor Knight was dealing but UNH couldn’t find a way to finish off its drives.

“Offensively, there were times when we were moving it and doing it and playing the way we’re capable of playing, and other times you shake your head and you get a little frustrated,” McDonnell said.

Knight completed 26 of 42 passes for 299 yards with one touchdown and an interception. His biggest throw came early in the second quarter when he launched a 50-50 ball up to redshirt freshman Nick Lorden, who somehow adjusted to the pass and corralled it in over cornerback Tajik Bagley for a 41-yard TD and a 7-0 lead for the Wildcats.

“It was a blown play and I saw (Knight) roll out so I kind of hooked it around and went deep,” said Lorden, who now has six TDs on nine catches this season. “I saw it go up and just went up and got it. I was surprised, but I’m happy it worked out.”

After holding the Blue Devils off the scoreboard late in the second quarter with a strong defensive stand in the red zone, UNH looked poised to add to its lead with its first possession of the second half.

Using his favorite target on the day, Knight found sophomore Malik Love (10 catches, 123 yards) for a key first down on third-and-10 to cross into Central Connecticut territory, but it was yet another drive that resulted in nothing on the scoreboard as the Wildcats pushed a 39-yard field goal attempt wide left.

Another UNH field goal attempt later in the quarter set the Blue Devils up in prime position to tie the game after Chad Woodfine got a piece of it and Tymir Hinton returned it to the UNH 40.

But with the likes of Quinlen Dean (12 tackles, interception) and Jae’Wua Horton (sack, 2½ tackles for loss) flying around the field for the Wildcats’ defense, the Blue Devils reached the UNH 30 before settling for trying a 47-yard field goal that never came close.

“We’re extremely excited and just ready to get back to practice and do all the things that have got us to this point,” Dean said. “We’re ready to take on any challenge.”

Red-zone woes

The Wildcats finished 1-for-4 on scoring chances in the red zone, something Knight said will be an emphasis for the offense going forward. UNH had an opportunity to put Central Connecticut away earlier with a first-and-goal from the 4, but Knight’s fade to Lorden in the end zone was intercepted by Bagley.

“I actually didn’t get the right play call and I just kind of missed that opportunity,” Knight said. “But if we want to continue our success through the playoffs, we have to better on offense, especially in the red zone. We have to count by sevens, not threes.”

Mr. 3,000

Knight became the fourth quarterback in UNH history to throw for 3,000 yards in a single season when he connected with Love for a 39-yard gain in the fourth quarter.

Knight joins Ricky Santos, Kevin Decker and Bobby Jean on the list.

Up next

UNH hits the road for the second round on Dec. 2 to face the Central Arkansas Bears (10-1), who haven’t lost since falling to Kansas State, 55-19, on Sept. 2. Since then, the Bears are averaging 39.5 points per contest behind a strong rushing attack that’s piled up 20 TDs and over 2,400 yards.

(Jay McAree can be reached at 369-3371, jmcaree@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JayMcAree.)