UNH football needs improved effort against favored Central Arkansas in FCS second round

  • Central Arkansas quarterback Hayden Hildebrand (12) leads the FCS in passing efficiency, is fifth in completion percentage (66.5) and was the Southland Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year. UNH will take on Hildebrand and the fourth-seeded Bears in a second-round playoff game on Saturday. Courtesy / University of Central Arkansas

  • Central Arkansas linebacker/safety George Odum (31) was named the Southland Conference Defensive Player of the Year after he finished the season with 106 tackles, including eight tackles for a loss. The University of New Hampshire will travel to Conway, Ark., to meet UCA in a second-round playoff game on Saturday. Courtesy / University of Central Arkansas

Monitor staff
Friday, December 01, 2017

An element of luck has helped propel the latest playoff run for the University of New Hampshire football team. First, the Wildcats lost their regular-season finale but still received an at-large bid to the tournament when other four-loss teams weren’t so fortunate. Then UNH’s first-round opponent, Central Connecticut State, suspended its starting quarterback for one game, which turned out to be a 14-0 win for the ’Cats on Saturday.

No. 21/20 New Hampshire (8-4) will need more than luck when it travels to No. 3/3 Central Arkansas (10-1) for Saturday’s second-round playoff game.

“We are going to have to go above and beyond what we’ve been playing in order to move on in this tournament,” UNH Coach Sean McDonnell said. “The good thing is, we’re capable.”

New Hampshire is definitely capable of beating the Bears, the Southland Conference champions who rolled into the postseason on a 10-game winning streak, but the ’Cats will have to bring their “A” game to Conway, Ark., to pull off the upset. They know it, and more importantly, they believe they can do it.

“If we go down there and we play how New Hampshire football does, we’re going to stun some people,” UNH offensive lineman Matt Mascia said.

It would certainly stun the Southland, which heaped praise on Central Arkansas with its conference awards. UCA quarterback Hayden Hildebrand was the Southland Offensive Player of the Season, linebacker/safety George Odum was the Defensive Player of the Year, Steve Campbell was named the Coach of the Year, John Cook got the Offensive Lineman of the Year award and running back Kierre Crossley was the Freshman of the Year. All told, the Bears had 10 players named to the All-Southland First Team, including three offensive linemen and three defensive linemen.

“It’s a pretty good football team with a lot of really good football players,” McDonnell said.

Hildebrand, a 6-foot-3, 196-pound senior, is ranked in the top 20 in the FCS in nine statistical categories. He’s No. 1 in passing efficiency (181.27) and No. 5 in completion percentage (66.9), which makes sense since the Bears utilize a short passing game that features a lot of play-action. But he’s also No. 2 in yards per pass attempt (10.29) and No. 3 in yards per completion (15.38), so those short passes turn into big gains for UCA.

Hildebrand is also impressive when one looks beyond the numbers.

“He’s really a student of the game,” Campbell said of his quarterback. “He’s a guy that studies the game. A very cerebral guy with a lot of athletic ability. Just a very conscientious football player that’s been a three-year starter for us and he’s the leader of our team.”

Hildebrand may be the leader, but the Bears are a run-first team that averages 207.8 rushing yards per game behind the two-headed attack of the shifty Crossley (5-8, 168) and the bullish Carlos Blackman (6-1, 235). That may turn out to be a good thing for the Wildcats, whose strength as a team is stopping the run.

“First goal is always to stop the run,” said sophomore linebacker Quinlen Dean, who leads UNH with 113 tackles and was named to the All-CAA Second Team along with senior defensive tackle Rick Holt, another key cog in New Hampshire’s run defense, which has allowed 99.5 rushing yards per game in its last six contests.

Odum is a 6-2, 190-pound senior who plays all over the field for the Bears and leads the team in tackles with 106, which includes eight tackles for a loss.

“We have (Odum) playing at outside backer, but he can play man coverage, he can play zone, we blitz him, we play him some at middle linebacker, he can drop into a deep third and cover a middle of the field,” Campbell said. “I mean there’s a lot of different things … off the field if you need your carburetor fixed or you need your air conditioning fixed, and George raises dogs, puppies, so I mean George is a true renaissance man.”

Odum may be able to do everything, but he doesn’t have to do it alone. Corner Tremon Smith was a first-team all-conference selection and led the Southland in both interceptions (five) and pass breakups (10). The Bears don’t blitz a lot, but they don’t need to with three All-Southland First Team defensive linemen in Chris Terrell (11 sacks), Eric Jackson (10 sacks) and Chris Chambers (5½ sacks).

Those defensive linemen may be UNH’s biggest concern in Arkansas. The Wildcats gave up 16 sacks in their last two regular-season games and are allowing four sacks per game, which ranks them No. 119 out of 123 FCS teams. But Central Connecticut had “only” three sacks in the first-round playoff game, and the Wildcats feel they are headed in the right direction when it comes to protecting quarterback Trevor Knight.

“I felt the last game was a big step,” Mascia said. “Coming together, definitely cut down on the quarterback pressures, quarterback sacks. Still there were a couple, and we’d like to go a game without getting any, that’s the main goal, to keep our quarterback clean and have no color on the back of his jersey, but I think it was a big step.”

Despite facing constant pressure this season, Knight was an All-CAA Third Team pick and the New England Division I Player of the Year. The junior from Amherst is No. 11 in the FCS in passing yards (3,150) and No. 15 in total offense (274.3 yards per game).

When the offensive line gives Knight enough time, he can almost always find an open Neil O’Connor. The junior receiver was a an All-CAA First Team pick and a finalist for the Walter Payton Award, given to the top offensive player in the FCS. O’Connor ranks No. 3 in the FCS in receiving yards (1.341), No. 6 in receptions per game (7.6) and No. 14 in receiving touchdowns (10). He also drew some high praise from Campbell.

“(O’Connor) is a Cooper Kupp, who we played last year at Eastern Washington,” Campbell said. “Cooper Kupp is now with the (NFL’s Los Angeles) Rams and playing well, and (O’Connor) reminds me of Cooper Kupp.”

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