UNH football thankful for chance to play in FCS playoffs vs. CCSU

  • University of New Hampshire quarterback Trevor Knight (18) is sacked during the 2016 playoffs by eventual national champion James Madison. UNH will be back in the playoffs on Saturday at home against Central Connecticut State University. CATHY KUSHNER / JMU Athletics

  • University of New Hampshire quarterback Trevor Knight (right) has been running away from a lot of defenders recently, as he was doing here in UNH’s 16-6 win against Elon on Nov. 11. Knight has been sacked 16 times in the last two games, and the Wildcats will have to protect their QB better when they host Central Connecticut State University in a first-round FCS playoff game Saturday. Courtesy photos / UNH Athletics

  • University of New Hampshire senior captain and safety D’Andre Drummond-Mayrie is thankful that his team got an at-large bid for the FCS playoffs. Drummond-Mayrie said, “it’s kind of having that second chance and making sure you make the most of it.” The Wildcats will try to do just that when they take on Central Connecticut State on Saturday at 2 p.m. in a first-round playoff matchup. Courtesy / UNH Athletics

Monitor staff
Friday, November 24, 2017

DURHAM – After receiving an at-large playoff bid on Sunday, the University of New Hampshire football team feels like it has a second life.

The Wildcats were on the bubble with their 7-4 record, but they got the invite and will make a 14th straight appearance in the FCS playoffs, the longest streak in the country, when they face Northeast Conference champ Central Connecticut State (8-3) Saturday at 2 p.m. in Wildcat Stadium.

“You think it’s gone, but then you actually realize that you have another chance,” UNH senior captain and safety D’Andre Drummond-Mayrie said. “So it’s kind of having that second chance and making sure you make the most of it.”

In order to make the most of it, UNH has to find a way to protect quarterback Trevor Knight. The junior from Amherst has been sacked eight times in each of the last two games – a 16-6 win against Elon on Nov. 11 and 15-0 loss at Albany on Saturday.

“(The sacks) are coming every which way you can possibly think of it. Kid loses a one-on-one battle. There’s blitz pick up that doesn’t do the job. Guys not breaking open or getting free in the secondary because of man press coverage,” UNH Coach Sean McDonnell said. “If it was one thing I think we would be good enough to say, okay, here’s what we’ve got to do to correct it, but it’s been a variety of things ... and I don’t think there’s anybody that’s more disappointed in it than our offensive linemen and our offensive line coach. They want to get this corrected because when we have time and when we run the ball efficiently, we’ve been a pretty good offense.”

There’s no question the offensive line has to get better against a Central Connecticut defense that plays an odd front (three down lineman as opposed to the more common four), a scheme that gave UNH fits when it faced Elon’s odd front two weeks ago. But no one on New Hampshire’s offense feels good about getting shut out against Albany in the regular-season finale.

“It left a bad taste in our mouths,” UNH running back Evan Gray said. “Our defense clearly did all they could. But as an offense, not just one position group, but everybody has to do better. We all have to practice better and play better so we don’t have to worry about getting shut out like that again.”

Knight has been remarkable in the face of all this pressure, escaping what have looked like sure-fire sacks and completing passes on the run. He finished the regular season ranked 12th in the FCS in passing yards (2,851), 14th in completions per game (21.7), 15th in passing touchdowns (23) and 20th in completion percentage (62.7), and he was named to the All-CAA Third Team on Tuesday. But Knight still thinks he can do more to help the offense.

“I thought in the Elon game he did as good a job as you could possibly do. Last week there was pressure from all angles and ... he competed his tail off just to get the ball off,” McDonnell said of Knight. “The great thing is, he believes he’s got to play better. So he believes he’s got to get the ball out quicker, he believes he’s got to make better reads, and that’s what you look for in a quarterback, not to go point a finger at someone else. He believes he’s got to make plays.”

Quarterback mystery

The Wildcats may have some work to do when it comes to protecting Knight, but they’re in much better quarterback shape than Central Connecticut. On Monday, CCSU announced that starting quarterback Jacob Dolegala will be suspended for Saturday’s game for a, “violation of team policy.” Apparently Dolegala and another Blue Devils football player were at a party on campus on Saturday night that grew out of control and saw four students arrested on breach of peace charges.

Dolegala, a junior, had just led CCSU to a 42-14 decision against Robert Morris. The win was the eighth straight for the Blue Devils, clinched their first ever trip to the playoffs and saw Dolegala become the school’s all-time passing leader as he finished the contest with 5,908 passing yards in his career.

Sophomore Tanner Kingsley figures to get the start in Dolegala’s place. Kingsely has played in five games this year, completing 9 of 13 passes for 55 yards, and McDonnell said, “We have 47 snaps of him on tape.”

CCSU has leaned on its ground game this year with running backs Cameron Nash (197 carries, 1,003 yards) and Drew Jean-Guillaume (88 carries, 490 yards) leading the way, and McDonnell said, “I got a feeling they aren’t going to change much with that.”

“We’re kind of thinking it’s going to be more, well, I won’t tell you the game plan,” Drummond-Mayrie said. “But we’re trying to figure out what they’re going to try to do with (Kingsley) against us to try and hurt us, so we’ve been repping some different things.”

Turkey tradition

The coaches probably don’t mention it in their recruiting spiels, but if you go to UNH to play football, you should expect to spend Thanksgiving on campus.

“We’ve been here 11 or 10 of the 14 years that we’ve been in the playoffs. We’ve had to play on the opening weekend and it’s a pretty cool thing for us,” McDonnell said. “It starts with the people down at the dining hall, they are doing it on their own, coming in. They cook an unbelievable dinner and we get to see the kids in a little more relaxed atmosphere than usual. Some of the wives of the coaches come, and some of the children. It’s a good place to be and it’s a tradition we started in 2004 and we’ve kept it going ever since.”

“The last three years we’ve been here with the whole team, so you kind of get used to it,” Drummond-Mayrie said. “It’s fun being with everybody. You just realize that you’re blessed to keep playing more, especially now as a senior. You don’t want to take any of these games for granted because after this, it’s over.”

And a numbers thing

CCSU comes into Saturday’s game averaging 32.0 points per game and 372.4 yards per game, 189.8 rushing and 182.5 passing. The Wildcats are scoring 23.6 ppg and gaining 374.5 ypg (105.3 rushing, 269.3 passing). Defensively, the Blue Devils are allowing 27.2 ppg and 405.0 ypg (179.4 rushing, 225.6 passing). UNH is allowing 20.9 ppg and 355.5 ypg (121.1 rushing, 234.4 passing).

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