UNH has to-do list to pull FCS quarterfinal upset at No. 5 South Dakota State

  • South Dakota State University QB Taryn Christion will be a challenge for UNH on Saturday when the Wildcats travel to Brookings, S.D., to face the No. 5 Jackrabbits in an FCS quarterfinal game. Christion is 11th in the FCS in total offense and leads an offense that scores 37.4 points per game. Dave Eggen / Inertia

  • The University of New Hampshire football team will need to keep a close eye on South Dakota State wide receiver Jake Wieneke when it travels to Brookings, S.D., for Saturday’s FCS quarterfinal game. Wieneke is a three-time All-American who holds the Missouri Valley Football Conference career records for receiving yards (4,912) and receiving touchdowns (56). Dave Eggen/ Inertia 

Monitor staff
Friday, December 08, 2017

The University of New Hampshire football team will have a clear to-do list when it travels to fifth-seeded South Dakota State (10-2) for Saturday’s FCS quarterfinal game.

“If you can stop the run, contain the quarterback and then find a way to create some turnovers and put pressure on them, you’ve got a shot,” UNH coach Sean McDonnell said. “But you don’t have a shot if you don’t stop the run and you don’t contain the quarterback.”

The to-do list for No. 21/20 UNH (9-4) may be clear, but it won’t be easy. SDSU’s Taryn Christion is a dual-threat quarterback who finished sixth in the voting for this year’s Walter Payton Award, given to the FCS’s top offensive player, and is averaging 296.5 yards of total offense per game (11th in the FCS) – 257.6 passing yards (13th in the FCS) and 38.9 rushing yards. New Hampshire did learn on Thursday that it will have its own dual-threat quarterback, junior Trevor Knight, on Saturday. Knight, who is No. 15 in the FCS in total offense (274.3 yards per game), went through concussion protocol and was cleared to play after getting injured in last week’s win at Central Arkansas.

Of course, Knight will not be on the field trying to slow down Christion. That task falls to the UNH defense, which also has to deal with 6-foot-4, 260-pound All-American tight end Dallas Goedert, who leads all Division I tight ends in receiving yards (1,049), finished 12th in the Payton Award voting and will be one of the top-rated tight ends in the 2018 NFL draft. If Goedert is not open, which is rare, Christion can look for senior receiver Jake Wieneke, a three-time All-American who owns the Missouri Valley Football Conference career records for receiving yards (4,912) and receiving touchdowns (56).

The Jackrabbits’ running backs aren’t as decorated, but they’re still dangerous. Brady Mengarelli averages 5.7 yards per carry (734 yards on 128 attempts) and sophomore Mikey Daniel averages 4.7 yard per carry (467 yards on 90 attempts) and has a team-high 10 touchdowns.

“Very similar in a lot of ways, the multiplicity in it, to what JMU (James Madison, the top-ranked and undefeated defending champs) has between the run game, the RPOs (run-pass options) and straight drop backs,” McDonnell said. “This is a really good football team.”

Luckily for New Hampshire, its defense is really good, too. The Wildcats have given up an average of 10.4 points in their last five games and are coming off a dominant performance against fourth-seeded Central Arkansas in last week’s 21-15 second-round playoff win. UNH held the Bears to 21.6 points below their scoring average, to 134.8 yards below their rushing yards average (207.8 ypg) and recorded five sacks against UCA quarterback Hayden Hildebrand, who had only been sacked six times all season before the Wildcats came calling.

“Everybody knows that we’ve got to answer the bell and every week we try to hold and give our team a chance to win and every week we keep doing it,” said senior defensive tackle Rick Holt, who had a monster game last week that included 2½ sacks and a team-high nine tackles. “Maybe some people will start to give us a little bit of respect, but we’ve got to do it again this week.”

There won’t be as much pressure on the defense with Knight back in the fold. The junior has been spectacular all season, earning All-CAA Third Team recognition and throwing for 3,150 yards, the 11th best mark in the CAA. Knight has a pair of great weapons in receivers Neil O’Connor, an All-CAA First Team pick who finished 22nd in the Payton Award voting and is No. 3 in the FCS in receiving yards (1,341) and No. 6 in receptions per game (7.6), and Malik Love (66 catches, 687 yards), but the Wildcats might be tempted to run the ball against an SDSU defense that is allowing 169.8 rushing yards per game this season.

New Hampshire has struggled on the ground this season, but the Wildcats gained some traction last week with running back Evan Gray banging away for 85 yards on 24 carries. In order for the ’Cats to run the ball, they will have to account for Jackrabbits linebacker Christian Rozeboom. The 6-2, 220-pound sophomore leads the team with 113 tackles (his 66 solo stops are more than any SDSU teammate has total tackles) and finished 20th in voting for the Buck Buchanan Award, given to the top defensive player in the FCS.

Rozeboom may be the key, but there’s plenty of other talent on the SDSU defense. After last week’s 37-22 second-round playoff win against Northern Iowa, South Dakota State coach John Stieglmeier told the Brookings Register, “I thought for three quarters our defense played one of their best games of the year. That got a little out of hand (in the fourth), but the score was a little out of hand.”

There’s no question the Jackrabbits are on a roll. They’ve won six straight games and five straight against ranked opponents, a streak that includes a 33-21 win against No. 2 North Dakota State on Nov. 4. Central Arkansas had won 10 straight games before losing to UNH, and Central Connecticut State was on an eight-game winning streak before losing to New Hampshire in the first round, 14-0. But those winning streaks came in conferences (Southland for UCA, Northeast for CCSU) that are not on the same level with the Missouri Valley Football Conference, and New Hampshire knows all about that.

UNH is now 3-0 against Southland teams with all three wins coming on the road and in the playoffs. But the Wildcats are just 1-5 in the playoffs against MVFC teams with the only win coming in the 2008 first round against Southern Illinois, 29-20, and the latest loss coming in the 2014 semifinals against Illinois State, 21-18.

New Hampshire, with its FCS-best string of 14 consecutive playoff appearances, is used to having the postseason experience advantage over its opponents. But that won’t be the case against South Dakota State, which has made six straight playoff appearances.

Last year the Jackrabbits reached the quarterfinals after a 10-7 second-round home win against the CAA’s other Wildcats, Villanova. The Jackrabbits beat ’Nova on a last-minute 40-yard field goal from a kicker with a name that should be familiar to New England football fans – Chase Vinatieri, the nephew of former Patriot Adam Vinatieri. Chase, now a sophomore at SDSU, was named to the All-MVFC Second Team, is 12-for-13 on field goal attempts and connected from 55 yards out just last week.

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