Defense feeds into another successful season for UNH football

  • Quinlen Dean

  • Jared Kuehl

  • Rick Holt

  • Ryan Sosnak

Monitor staff
Thursday, November 30, 2017

A quarterback taking his offensive line out to dinner is fairly common. It’s smart to take care of the guys protecting you, and feeding the big fellas is a perfect way to show them some love.

Something similar is happening at the University of New Hampshire, except it’s on the defensive side of the ball. UNH linebacker Quinlen Dean made a deal with tackles Rick Holt and Ryan Sosnak – if Dean reached 100 tackles, he would take those two big guys out to eat.

Holt (6-foot-4, 294 pounds) and Sosnak (6-2, 288) have done a great job of keeping the opposition’s offensive line away from Dean, who has a team-leading 113 tackles and is more than happy to fulfill his promise.

“They want to go to Five Guys,” Dean said. “I thought they were going to hit me with like a steak place or something, but they said just get us burgers and fries. Those big guys, all right, we’ll do that. That’s great.”

The meal will come after the season, whenever that might be. The No. 21/20 Wildcats (8-4) are in the FCS playoffs for a 14th straight year, and they’ll keep playing until they lose or win a national championship. UNH won its first-round game last week against Central Connecticut State, 14-0, and will now face No. 3/3 Central Arkansas (10-1) on Saturday in Conway, Ark.

Dean, Holt, Sosnak and the rest of the New Hampshire defense has been the driving force for the Wildcats this season, and they’ll need to keep motoring in Arkansas, especially against the Bears power running attack.

“They’re going to be challenged and right now that’s probably the strength of our team – playing defense and stopping the run,” UNH Coach Sean McDonnell said. “If we can hang in there and do that, then we’ll give ourselves a shot on Saturday.”

The Wildcat defenders were inconsistent to start the season. They were good enough to beat Maine in the opener, excelled in a 22-12 win against FBS Georgia Southern in Week 2 and then got torched in a 51-26 loss at Holy Cross the next week.

The up-and-down continued for the next three games, but then things started to fall into place. Over the last six contests, UNH is allowing just 12.5 points per game. The defense led the way to the signature win of the regular season, a 16-6 decision against then-No. 7 Elon, and then blanked Central Connecticut State to open the playoffs.

“The guys that are playing right now are feeling better about how they’re playing, and I think we have a real good idea of how we want to fit the run, and I think our kids have a real good idea of fitting the run,” McDonnell said. “And then I think probably the most important thing of all this is we’re tackling pretty well.”

McDonnell saying “the guys that are playing now” is significant because the return of Jared Kuehl, the other linebacker in UNH’s 4-2-5 scheme, has been one of the key’s to UNH’s second-half defensive success. Kuehl (team-high 12 tackles for a loss and two fumble recoveries) missed four games with injury and when he came back is exactly when the Wildcats began to surge. But neither he nor Dean would be effective if it wasn’t for the big guys in front of them.

“They’re living off our defensive front filing their gaps and taking care of ’em, and both those kids are playing very effective football for us,” McDonnell said. “They run to the football, they tackle very well and our scheme helps them. It’s designed to get our linebackers free to make plays.”

None of this will come as a surprise to Central Arkansas.

“They’ve got two outstanding defensive tackles and the defensive ends are great pass rushers and relentless,” UCA Coach Sam Campbell said. “The two inside backers (Kuehl and Dean), (Dean) is really, really good and (Kuehl) is a ball hawk … a lot of great athletes on defense and extremely well-coached.”

The Bears will first attack with a pair of running backs – speedster Kierre Crossley (146 carries, 770 yards) and power back Carlos Blackman (162 carries, 702 yards). If the ’Cats can contain them, UCA will turn to quarterback Hayden Hildebrand, who leads the FCS in passing efficiency (181.27) and is No. 2 in yards per pass attempt (10.29). Stopping the run may be UNH’s strong suit, but the Wildcats are confident they can also defend the pass.

“We feel like if we stop the run then they’ll have to come out and pass, and we believe that our secondary is very prepared for this game and I think we can win that way,” Dean said.

Just like Dean believes in the secondary, the UNH offense believes in the defense.

“I think we all are very confident in our defense and what they can do,” New Hampshire offensive lineman Matt Mascia said. “So if we give them a couple breaths, if we give them some time when they can come back on that field being re-juiced, that’s going to be a big part of this game.”

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