UNH football hoping to lock down 14th straight playoff bid in Saturday’s regular-season finale in Albany

  • New Hampshire linebacker Jared Kuehl (58) sacks Elon quarterback Davis Cheek during UNH’s 16-6 win last week in Durham. Kuehl was named CAA Defensive Player of the Week for his performance against Elon (six tackles, sack, fumble recovery, pass breakup) and has been at the heart of UNH’s recent defensive surge. The Wildcats hope to punch their ticket to a 14th straight FCS tournament with a win in their regular-season finale Saturday at Albany. Joey Walker / UNH courtesy

Monitor Staff
Wednesday, November 15, 2017

DURHAM – Last week, the University of New Hampshire football boosted its playoff credentials with a signature win when it beat then-No. 7 Elon, 16-6. This week, the No. 16/14 Wildcats (7-3) will travel to Albany (3-7) looking for an eighth win that would solidify their case for a 14th straight trip to the FCS playoffs.

“It will look a lot better if we can get the eighth win as opposed to ending our season with a loss,” UNH senior defensive tackle Rick Holt said. “Because there’s a lot of teams out there in other conferences that have similar or better records than us, so if we’re able to get eight wins that looks pretty good.”

Getting to eight wins would likely guarantee the ’Cats a spot in the 24-team FCS tournament, but a loss at Albany won’t mean their streak of 13-straight playoff appearances is guaranteed to end. New Hampshire was invited to the playoffs with four losses in 2016 and 2015, as well as in 2007, 2010 and 2013.

UNH Coach Sean McDonnell doesn’t like to talk about playoff possibilities, but Zack Holler, sports editor for the school’s student paper, The New Hampshire, wasn’t afraid to ask McDonnell if he thought his team should get into the playoffs regardless of Saturday’s outcome in Albany.

“People a lot smarter than me have to figure that out,” McDonnell answered Holler. “I think over the course of 11 games what we’ve done is pretty good and what we’ve done in our league is pretty good (UNH is 5-2 in the CAA). We beat a (FBS) team (Georgia Southern, 22-12, on Sept. 9), that’s a pretty good accomplishment ... I think the most important thing for us to do is go win the next one and let everything sort itself out about that.”

In order to win that next one, the Wildcats will have to beat an Albany team that ran over them last year in Durham, 36-25. The Great Danes got a school-record 298 rushing yards from sophomore Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks in that contest. The good news for UNH is that Ibitokun-Hanks is out with an injury and Albany has struggled offensively without him, averaging just 17.6 points per game, which is 101st out of 123 FCS teams. Albany is also 109th in total offense (274.3 yards per game) and 110th in rushing offense (87.5 ypg).

The bad news for UNH is that the Albany defense has been almost as good as the offense has been bad. The Great Danes are ranked 11th in the FCS in total defense (298.1 ypg allowed) and lead the nation in fumble recoveries with 14.

“The biggest thing I’ve seen is their defense be a physical, dominating defense, and it starts with their linebacker Nate Hatalsky,” McDonnell said.

Hatalsky leads the CAA in tackles with 113. Outside linebacker Eli Mencer leads the conference in both forced fumbles (four) and fumble recoveries (three), and cornerback Jamal Robinson is tied for sixth in the CAA with 10 passes defended (nine pass breakups, one interception).

“They look very tough, they’re very physical,” UNH sophomore receiver Malik Love said. “They play a lot of man-to-man, so we’ve just got to go in there and win our one-on-one battles.”

Locking down

There will be more than one physical, dominating defense in Albany on Saturday. The UNH defense doesn’t have the same shiny stats as the Great Danes, but the Wildcats have been locking down opponents as they make their playoff push.

In their last four games, the ’Cats have given up an average of 15 points per game, and that includes an interception return for a touchdown in their 21-0 loss to No. 1 James Madison on Oct. 28. Take away that pick six, and the Wildcats are giving up just 13.25 ppg in their last four, and they held JMU, which leads the CAA in scoring, to 22.4 points below their average.

“(JMU) stuck it to us twice kind of badly last year (42-39 in the regular season and 55-22 in the playoffs) and then when we played them again down there this year, they only scored 14 points on us and they were (3-for-15) on third downs,” Holt said, “and we were like, ‘Hey, we can probably do this against some other teams, against better competition.’ ”

A key to UNH’s four-game defensive surge is the return of linebacker Jared Kuehl. He missed four games with an injury before returning for the last four, and this week he was named the CAA Defensive Player of the Week after coming up with six tackles (five solo, two for a loss and one a sack), a fumble recovery and a pass breakup against Elon.

“Having Jared back is probably the biggest thing for us because he’s been really, really good since he missed (those four) games,” Holt said. “He’s huge to have back.”

Growing and growing

The improvement of quarterback Trevor Knight from last season to this season was obvious way back in August when New Hampshire opened its season with a 24-23 win against Maine. And Knight has continued to improve as the season has progressed. The junior from Amherst currently ranks in the top 20 in the FCS in eight different categories, including passing yards per game (11th, 271.8), passing touchdowns (12th, 23), total offense (15th, 288.0 ypg) and completion percentage (17th, 63.1).

“He’s just doing smarter things with the ball,” McDonnell said. “It’s a credit to the kid and it’s a credit to the coaching. ... This week is huge for him finishing in the right way, finishing in the right direction.”

“Definitely his throwing efficiency,” Love said when asked how he has seen Knight improve this year, “and also his communication with us receivers and also now just being more of a leader.”

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