UNH football beats Elon to bolster postseason resume

  • Jake Kennedy (left), Evan Gray (center) and Trevor Knight celebrate a UNH touchdown during Saturday’s win over Elon. Ryan Szepan / UNH Athletics

  • Ryan Szepan / UNH Athletics

  • Jared Kuehl (58) and Jae’Wuan Horton (91) pursue Elon quarterback Davis Cheek on Saturday during the Wildcats’ win. Joey Walker / UNH Athletics

Monitor staff
Sunday, November 12, 2017

DURHAM – Sure, the University of New Hampshire is a top-20 team brandishing a string of 13 straight Football Championship Subdivision playoff appearances. But the Wildcats still needed to work on their 2017 resume if they wanted to extend their best-in-the-nation streak of postseason trips to 14. They needed a signature win and they needed to avoid a fourth loss.

No. 18/16 UNH took care of both those needs with a 16-6 win against No. 7/9 Elon on Saturday in front of 7,294 in the final regular-season game at Wildcat Stadium.

“It’s huge. It’s huge because it’s the next one. Everyone is talking about this and that and the other thing … it doesn’t matter, man,” said UNH Coach Sean McDonnell, who really doesn’t like talking about the big picture. “Now we’ve got a chance to live for another day and go down and play Albany. We’ll regroup, we’ll see if we can get everybody healthy and see if we can win a game on the road in the CAA. If we can do that, then things will be good. We won today, things are good.”

If the Wildcats (7-3) can win next Saturday at Albany (3-7), a 14th straight trip to the playoffs should be a given. It’s a good position to be in, but the ’Cats wouldn’t be there if they hadn’t taken care of business against the Phoenix (8-2), and they wouldn’t have done that without what may have been their best defensive effort of the season.

UNH didn’t give up points until there was just 3:16 left in the game, forced three turnovers and held Elon to 6-for-16 on third down. The Phoenix arrived in Durham averaging 150.8 rushing yards per game, but they had just 31 yards on 22 carries on Saturday, a paltry average of 1.4 yards per carry.

“Stopping the run was our main priority and we did that,” said linebacker Jared Kuehl, who finished with six tackles (two for a loss), a sack and a fumble recovery. “We stopped ’em early and often, so they had to resort to the passing game.”

Cornerback Prince Smith Jr. and linebacker Quinlen Dean each had a team-high seven tackles for New Hampshire, and Smith also had a forced fumble and three pass breakups. Defensive end Jae’Waun Horton had a strip sack in the middle of the fourth quarter to help the Wildcats hoard momentum and Nick Lubischer recovered a fumbled punt to set up a 31-yard field goal from Max Pedinoff that pushed New Hampshire’s lead to 16-0 with 2:32 left in the third quarter.

“Defensively, obviously it was a tremendous effort,” McDonnell said. “Kept them out of the end zone for most of the game, made some third-down stops, made some plays, put some pressure on the quarterback. Things we had to do to help win the football game.”

The Wildcats had a chance to take a lead in the first quarter, but Pedinoff missed a 31-yard field goal after Trevor Knight was sacked on a third-and-goal from the Elon 8. It was one of eight sacks on the day for an Elon defense that played well itself, holding UNH to 336 total yards (the Phoenix finished with 315 total yards).

“They came from all different angles and all different ways,” McDonnell said of the Elon pass rush. “They got us a couple times, some times we didn’t protect well. Got to watch the tape and see how we can correct it because we’re going to need to correct it for next week because Albany can put pressure on the quarterback.”

New Hampshire found the game’s first points at the end of a 67-yard drive when Knight (32-for-42, 271 yards) hit Justin Malone-Woods with an 11-yard touchdown pass with 3:32 left in the first half.

“We ran that play the last time we were in the red zone and they brought a blitz, so I didn’t end up throwing the ball to Justin,” Knight said. “(Offensive coordinator Ryan) Carty told me to just hang in there and throw it to Justin and he’ll be able to catch it, so we just did that. We do it every week in practice.”

Elon nearly answered in the final minute of the first half, but a 41-yard touchdown catch by Corey Joyner was called back due to a holding penalty on Oli Udoh, who had such a grip on Kuehl that he ripped his cleat off in the process.

The Wildcats took their 7-0 lead to the locker room and then started the third quarter by doing something they struggled with all game – running the ball. UNH gained just 65 yards on the ground, but 44 of those came on the first possession of the second half. The ’Cats put together a 17-play drive, the most plays they’ve had in one possession all season, as Evan Gray converted two third downs and one fourth down on the ground, and then gave his team a 13-0 lead (the two-point pass attempt failed) with a bullish 2-yard touchdown run.

“I thought Evan ran really hard, I thought our o-line blocked better than they had been and we mixed in just enough of the passing attack to keep them off balance a little bit and keep the chains moving,” McDonnell said.

The lead was pushed to 16-0 after Lubischer recovered a fumbled punt on the Elon 18 and Pedinoff booted his 31-yard field goal with 2:32 left in the third quarter. At that point, UNH had 23 offensive plays in the third quarter and Elon had just two. A well-rested New Hampshire defense held the Phoenix at bay until Davis Cheek (21-for-46, 284 yards) connected with De’Sean McNair for a 23-yard touchdown with 3:16 left on the clock, but by then it was too little and way too late for Elon.

“The kids hung in there and kept their composure and ended up winning the football game, and it’s a huge win for us against a really good football team,” McDonnell said. “Really proud of the way we played. Now we live for another game.”

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