New Hampshire Football Report

UNH gets second chance

Allen Lessels
UNH Insider

HARRISONBURG, Va. – The last time the University of New Hampshire football team faced a same-season rematch with a Colonial Athletic Association rival, things worked out quite well for coach Sean McDonnell’s crew.

Saturday, the Wildcats will see if they can duplicate some of their success from 2013.

They play at James Madison (2.p.m.) in a second-round game in the NCAA Division I FCS playoffs.

James Madison is 10-1 overall, swept through the Colonial Athletic Association with an 8-0 record and had a bye last week as one of the top eight seeds. UNH is 8-4 and coming off a 64-21 win over Patriot League champion Lehigh last Saturday.

The Wildcats are looking to make the most of a best-in-the-land run of 13 straight playoff appearances. The Dukes are looking to stop a string of losing their first playoff game, at home, the last two years.

The mission now is simple and straightforward.

“We’ve got to win to survive and advance,” said senior running back Dalton Crossan, who has rushed for 1,189 yards, the sixth highest single-season total in UNH history.

The winner of the UNH-JMU game moves on to face the winner of the second-round game between Chattanooga and No. 5 seed Sam Houston State in the quarterfinals.

This year’s scenario does differ a bit from 2013.

Then, UNH played Maine, the No. 4 ranked team in the country, in the last game of the regular season at home and needed a win to have a shot at making the playoffs. The Wildcat got their victory, 24-3, and a spot in the playoffs.

After knocking off Lafayette, 45-7, in the first round of the playoffs, UNH and Maine squared off again, this time in Orono. The Wildcats won that second-round game and then advanced to the FCS semifinals with a win at Southeastern Louisiana.

The tweak this year is that James Madison won the first meeting against UNH, 42-39, at Wildcat Stadium on Oct. 15.

It was a strange one.

The UNH defense slowed James Madison’s running game, but the Dukes did damage through the air and Bryan Schor passed for four touchdowns. The Wildcats were moving the ball on offense, but were having trouble getting into the end zone.

The visitors led 28-12 after three periods and then things started to unravel for the Wildcats. JMU scored again and on the ensuing kickoff a Wildcat fumbled and the Dukes returned it 6 yards for another score. James Madison led 42-12 with exactly 10 minutes to play.

Suddenly, UNH turned it all around. The Wildcats, with senior Adam Riese taking over for a banged-up Trevor Knight at quarterback, began to finish their drives on offense and making stops on defense. They recovered an onsides kick and scored again and with 1:15 to play UNH trailed, 42-39, and was kicking off.

This time, James Madison recovered the onside kick and ran out the clock and the rally came up short.

For the game, Knight and Riese each passed for career highs in yards and the Wildcats had 512 passing yards total.

The Wildcats are looking for execution similar to what they had in the fourth period seven Saturdays ago.

“We want to rewrite that whole fourth quarter that people remembered,” said JMU senior linebacker Gage Steele during the CAA media call this week. “We want to start fast, as always, and finish the whole game out very strong with everybody being on the same page. That’s something that we’ve gotten better at as the games have gone on.”

The Dukes are looking to match what they did in the first three quarters – which is more like what they did most of the season. They won games 80-7 over Morehead State, 84-7 over Rhode Island and 63-14 over Elon on the way to outscoring teams 47.7 points to 23.5.

McDonnell said during his weekly press conference that Knight – who missed the Lehigh game and three quarters of the Maine game that ended the regular season – will start at quarterback Saturday if he’s ready to go.

If not, Riese, who led the Wildcats to wins at Maine and against Lehigh, will get the start again. Riese set career marks for passing against Maine with 218 yards and then against Lehigh with 273 yards.

“He threw the deep ball really well,” McDonnell said of the quarterback’s play against Lehigh. “He scrambled with a purpose. He just had a command of what was going on. That’s what we’ve come to expect from him all along.”

Knight got the edge as starter partly because of his ability to run and escape pressure.

In his first six games, he threw eight touchdown passes and had eight interceptions. In his last five, he has six touchdown passes and two picks.

Whoever plays at quarterback for the Wildcats is going to need to lead the offense to touchdowns, likely several of them. At least.

What happened in October stays in October . . . for the most part.

“It doesn’t matter,” McDonnell said. “We moved the ball and that gives you confidence. We moved the ball the whole game, but we didn’t finish. . . . What you can take away from it is you can play with these guys.”

The view from the JMU sideline?

“I think both of us are probably playing better right now than we were the last time we met,” said James Madison coach Mike Houston “My gut feeling is this game is going to be a real barn burner, one that’s going to be a real fun one to watch and may cause the two coaches to age a good bit during the day Saturday.”

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