Visit from upstart Elon presents opportunity for UNH football

  • University of New Hampshire senior center Jake Kennedy (73) will have to keep his head up on Saturday against No. 7/9 Elon in Durham. MAYA CAMPBELL / UNH Courtesy

  • Elon Quarterback Davis Cheek

Monitor staff
Thursday, November 09, 2017

DURHAM – Opportunity looms for the University of New Hampshire football team. The No. 18/16 Wildcats (6-3) host No. 7/9 Elon (8-1) on Saturday at 2 p.m. with a chance to claim their signature win of the season and polish up their resume as they look to earn a 14th straight trip to the FCS playoffs.

“Sure it’s going to help us, but if we lose it’s not going to help us, so this Saturday is huge for us,” UNH Coach Sean McDonnell said. “The good thing is that they’re top 10 in the country and 6-0 in the conference and it’s a good thing we’re playing them. But what it is to me is a huge test in November to find out if you’re ready to make any kind of steps.”

The ’Cats have received playoff invitations with four losses in the past, it happened just last year as a matter of fact. But every year there are good four-loss teams that don’t get an invite, so there’s been extra pressure on UNH since it lost its third game of the season two weeks ago at James Madison. They handled the pressure with last week’s 35-16 win at William & Mary. Now they need to do it against Elon and again at Albany in the regular-season finale on Nov. 18.

“We’ve been talking about it in the field house, every game from now on is a playoff game, which is awesome, especially with the way we play in this month, in this stadium, and especially on Senior Day,” senior captain Jake Kennedy said. “There’s going to be a lot of emotion.”

The Wildcats are 4-0 at home this season and 55-8 in Durham since the start of the 2007 season. Those are impressive numbers, but don’t expect them to intimidate Elon. The Phoenix are 4-1 away from home this year and have quality wins at Richmond and at Villanova, teams that were ranked No. 6 and No. 13, respectively, at the time.

“They’ve done it on the road, and that’s what’s impressive to me,” McDonnell said. “They’ve won at some tough places to play.”

It’s been a remarkable season for the team from North Carolina. Elon joined the CAA in 2014 and went 7-27 in its first three years in the league, including a 2-9 mark in 2016. This season, the Phoenix have figured out the fine line between winning and losing. They’ve given up 223 points and scored 220, but that’s been enough to stack up eight wins, all but an 11-point victory over Rhode Island have come by just one score. The latest last-minute triumph was last week when Elon beat Towson, 33-30, in double overtime.

“There’s no doubt that the belief and confidence are there that we’re going to find a way to get it done in the end,” Elon Coach Curt Cignetti said during the league’s Monday teleconference. “And I do believe that our players believe that there’s another level that we’re capable of playing at and I think that’s the goal to achieve that level.”

Cignetti is in his first year at Elon after spending the last six seasons as the head coach at Division II Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where he compiled a 53-17 record. Cignetti’s arrival has clearly helped the Phoenix, but he’s not the only new face that’s boosted the program.

“They were going in the right direction and now they’ve taken the next step because they’ve gotten some young kids who can do it and they’ve gotten a quarterback,” McDonnell said. “And this league is a quarterback-driven league. Teams that have a good quarterback get an opportunity to win football games.”

That quarterback is also one of the young kids – true freshman Davis Cheek. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Cheek has completed 63.4 percent of his passes (137-for-216) for 1,821 yards, 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

“He doesn’t get rattled,” McDonnell said of Cheek. “He’s been hit and he hasn’t been rattled. He has a really good idea where he’s going with the ball. … He’s been, I think, very well aided by the way they run the offense and that they can run the football.”

Elon ranks third in the CAA in rushing yards per game with a 188.1 average, and that’s after losing starter Malcolm Summers to injury for the last three games. Sophomore De’Sean McNair (111 carries, 471 yards) and redshirt freshman Brelynd Cyphers (79 carries, 368 yards) have stepped up with Summers down.

Defensively, Elon runs a unique 3-3 scheme. That odd-man front will change blocking responsibilities and requirements for the Wildcats, but they’re confident they can handle it.

“It’s different, but I think we’re embracing the challenge,” said Kennedy, who centers the offensive line. “We’ve been working on it this week in practice and we’re going to do some different things to them to get them off kilter. And definitely the key this week is to be able to run the ball efficiently like we did last week because it leads to really good things for us.”

The ’Cats only ran for 105 yards on 38 carries in last week’s win, but that was enough to open up space and time for quarterback Trevor Knight, who went 25-for-35 for 406 yards and four touchdowns. Those numbers led to UNH’s highest offensive yardage total of the season (511) and the CAA Offensive Player of the Week Award and the New England Football Writers Golden Helmet Award for Knight.

“He’s really good,” Cignetti said of Knight. “He can beat you with his arm, he can beat you with his legs. They’ve got a really nice scheme and they do a great job of coaching.”

Injury report

UNH will have to run the ball without senior captain Donald Goodrich, who is in concussion protocol and may be done for the season. Sophomore safety Rick Ellison is also dealing with concussion symptoms and may not play on Saturday. If he can’t go, senior Geno Miller will likely get to see more playing time on Senior Day.

“It’s something that we really cherish and it’s a rude awakening when you realize you have two more guaranteed games left in your season,” Miller said. “It’s a blessing to be here and we’re just going to put on a show like any other day.”

And a numbers thing

Receiver Neil O’Connor is entering some elite territory. The junior from Leominster, Mass., now has 1,129 receiving yards on the season, which ranks fourth in UNH history. Two familiar names are tied at the top of that list with 1,551 yards – David Ball, who did it in 2005, and R.J. Harris (2014). O’Connor leads the CAA and is second in the FCS in receiving yards per game (125.4), and tops in the league and fourth in the country in catches per game (7.8).

Knight is second in the CAA and 11th in the FCS in passing yards per game (271.9) and second in the league and 10th in the country in passing touchdowns (22).

Sophomore linebacker Quinlen Dean is 10th in the FCS in solo tackles per game (6.0). Dean leads the team with 79 stops, including 54 solo. Ellison is second on the team with 50 total tackles.

Elon comes into Saturday’s game scoring 24.4 points per game and allowing 24.8 ppg. The Phoenix’s only loss of the year came in the season-opener at Toledo, 47-13. UNH is scoring 27.1 ppg and allowing 23.2.

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