Orfao: UNH football proves worthy of at-large bid with FCS quarterfinal surge

Monitor columnist
Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Delaware Coach Danny Rocco had every right to be angry.

“I cannot find any logical, sensible reason that New Hampshire trumps Delaware. There isn’t one statistical, data-driven reason,” Rocco told the News Journal’s Kevin Tresolini after the FCS Championship brackets were revealed Nov. 19.

Delaware was tied with UNH at 7-4 overall and 5-3 in the Colonial Athletic Association. The Blue Hens owned an impressive win over Stony Brook, which was the Seawolves’ only loss in conference play. Delaware’s nonconference blemish was by 27 points at Virginia Tech, which isn’t nearly as ugly as the 25-point setback UNH suffered at Holy Cross. The Wildcats ended the regular season with an uninspiring thud in a 15-0 defeat at Albany (4-7).

There’s likely some on the University of Delaware campus still telling anyone who will listen that the Blue Hens should have been awarded an at-large bid to the 24-team FCS tournament – despite an 18-17 loss at Towson (5-6) and an unconvincing season-ending loss to Villanova (5-6) by three touchdowns.

New Hampshire Athletic Director Marty Scarano is the CAA’s representative on the FCS committee, which predictably ignited some accusations of favoritism.

“This is an injustice,” Rocco said to the News Journal.

Well, settle down there.

The past two weeks have provided some clarity to the debate: UNH unequivocally belongs.

If the Blue Hens – and other alleged snubs like Eastern Washington, Austin Peay and McNeese State – deserved to be in, it shouldn’t have been at the expense of the Wildcats. New Hampshire’s defense has proven to be elite during the team’s quarterfinal surge in a 15-0 win over Central Connecticut State at Wildcat Stadium and a 21-15 upset of Southland Conference champion Central Arkansas.

The first-round win didn’t surprise many, considering it was at home against a backup quarterback. However, the triumph over the fourth-seeded Bears should silence any remaining doubters – Central Arkansas was stacked.

The Bears dominated the Southland’s postseason awards in a conference featuring No. 6 Sam Houston State – which is among the last eight teams still standing – and Nicholls State, which put up a first-round fight in a 38-31 loss at South Dakota. McNeese State (9-2, 7-2) had an argument as a fourth team deserving of a tournament bid.

In a solid Southland Conference, the Bears were simply superior.

At first glance Saturday, it seemed that trend would continue.

The Wildcats absorbed the initial blow as UCA star quarterback Hayden Hildebrand hit Cedric Battle for a 74-yard score early in the first quarter. The defense responded with 48 minutes of shutout football and Evan Horn’s interception return for a touchdown put UNH ahead for good.

The tables seemed sure to turn when UNH quarterback Trevor Knight left the game injured. An untested Christian Lupoli confidently rose to the occasion and completed 8 of 10 passes for 63 yards and a TD.

Central Arkansas rarely turned the ball over while going 10-1. UNH dropped the Bears to 10-2 with four takeaways, including the game-sealing sack and fumble recovery from relentless linebacker Jared Kuehl, who’s helped elevate the defense to another level since returning from injury Nov. 11.

The play was a personification of the Wildcats’ story so far: an opportunistic defense taking full advantage of a second chance.

New Hampshire traveled into enemy territory and stepped onto the Bears’ trademark purple and silver turf as multi-touchdown underdogs. The Wildcats left with an eye-opening upset that validates an extension of the nation’s longest FCS postseason streak to 14 seasons.

UNH has proven itself worthy of a playoff bid – and there’s no statistical, data-driven way to deny it.

(Jason Orfao can be reached at jorfao@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JasonOrfao.)