UNH football ready for season-opener vs. rival Maine

  • Trevor Knight (18) pitches the ball to Brandon Gallagher during the University of New Hampshire’s last football game – a 56-14 loss in the FCS quarterfinals on Dec. 9, 2017. Knight and the Wildcats open their 2018 season Thursday night on the road against rival Maine. DAVE EGGEN / Inertia Sports Media file

  • University of New Hampshire junior linebacker Quinlen Dean.

  • Lacey

  • University of New Hampshire junior cornerback Prince Smith, Jr.

For the Monitor
Published: 8/29/2018 11:55:13 PM

It’s Opening Week and Maine Week all wrapped into one and as odd as that timing may still seem, the University of New Hampshire kicks off the 2018 season Thursday night in Orono, Maine at 7 p.m. with much on the line right out of the gate.

The historic Brice-Cowell Musket goes to the winner of the series that dates to 1903. The victor also earns border battle bragging rights and a share of the early lead in the Colonial Athletic Association standings.

Sunday night, former Wildcats including Julian Turner, Dougie Moss and Franklin’s Matt Kaplan chipped in with video reminders to the team of what Maine Week is all about.

“Last night we had a team meeting led by Trevon (Bryant) and the rest of the senior class,” junior linebacker Quinlen Dean said during a media session Monday. “Jules sent us a video. Dougie Moss. Kaplan sent us a video. They just kind of harped on the importance of this game and the severity of opening the season not only with Maine but with a CAA team. We understand whose shoulders we’re standing on and we understand what needs to be done and we’ve been working the last week or so to get that done for the guys who came before us.”

UNH has won eight straight and 15 of its last 16 games against Maine.

For the bulk of the last two decades the UNH-Maine game has been played as the regular season finale for each team.

The Wildcats knocked off the Black Bears, 24-23, in the opener for both teams last year in Wildcat Stadium. After this two-year blip in the format – created by a couple of quirks and open dates in the schedule – UNH and Maine will go back to playing each other in the final game of the season.

For now, UNH follows the Maine game with its home opener against Colgate for Youth Football Night on Saturday, Sept. 8 in Wildcat Stadium at 6 p.m.

In addition to keeping the musket and opening their conference schedule with a win, the Wildcats will also be looking to protect their preseason Top 10 FCS rankings – they are No. 7 in the STATS FCS Top 25 poll, No. 9 in the FCS Coaches Poll and No. 3 in the Athlon Sports FCS Power Poll.

The long-term goals include extending their nation’s-best streak of qualifying for the NCAA FCS Division I Championship tournament that currently stands at 14 years.

The Wildcats return 18 starters – nine on offense and nine on defense – from a team that finished 7-4 in the 2017 regular season and 9-5 overall and advanced to the FCS quarterfinals.

“I learned that when we do things the way we’re supposed to do them and play hard and do the things that I think have been the stamp of what UNH is football is all about, we’ve got a chance to be a good football team,” said UNH head coach Sean McDonnell, when asked what he learned about his team in preseason camp.

Consistency is the key on both sides of the ball, he said.

Shoring up the offensive line was a focus coming off last season and McDonnell likes what he’s seen of a deeper unit that has redshirt freshman Patrick Flynn at center, sophomores Jack Carroll and Matt Mascia at guard and senior Dayne Herron and either junior Noah Robison or grad student Cam Smith at tackle.

Senior quarterback Trevor Knight, the CAA preseason Offensive Player of the Year, runs the offense with receiving weapons such as senior Neil O’Connor and a running back crew that includes Bryant, junior Evan Gray and redshirt freshman running back Carlos Washington, Jr.

“I think our offense will be good,” McDonnell said. “I think the kid pulling the trigger does a real nice job when he’s got time to set his feet and do everything. And when coverage takes over he can break it and go. He’s a pretty good player. We’ve seen him for two years do those things. I think the key to the whole thing, I’ve been saying it since last December, is how well our offense line improves and they’ve down a decent job of it so far in camp. This will be a huge test on Thursday against Maine.”

Starting linebackers Dean and senior Jared Kuehl are among the veteran playmakers on a defense that has them on all levels from senior defensive end Jae’Wuan Horton to safeties junior safety Pop Lacey and sophomore safety Evan Horn and junior cornerbacks Isiah Perkins and Prince Smith, Jr.

“I expect them (Dean and Kuehl) to be the guys to make the tackles on the defensive front,” McDonnell said. “Both those guys are experienced. Jared’s going to be in his fourth year playing and Quinlen in his third year playing. I think both guys have natural abilities. Both guys have put on good size. I think both guys are itching and I think the system will allow them to get to the ball and make tackles if they put their reads and eyes where they belong.”

Dean led the team with 124 tackles last season and Kuehl had 66 while missing four games to injury.

Now, it’s Game Week and Maine Week and all systems are go.

“We don’t talk about Maine too much, but when Maine week comes around you get a different feel at practice,” Knight said. “Coach Mac is going to be a little bit harder on you. From scout team guys to starters he’s demanding greatness out of everybody throughout practice. That gets us pretty well prepared. We just want to keep the legacy going and keep the musket here.”

On to Orono on a Thursday night.

(Allen Lessels is the UNH insider and can be reached at Allen.Lessels@unh.edu)

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