Allen Lessels on College Football: Wildcats deliver message with thumping of Maine
DURHAM -- Nico Steriti broke through the line of scrimmage and took off and 68 yards later was in the end zone with the touchdown that sealed the deal in New Hampshire's crucial 24-3 win over Maine in front of 10,333 at Cowell Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
Back on the UNH 25-yard line, a step or two onto the field so he could get a better view of the play, a guy in a dark jacket raised both arms skyward, signaling a score - just in case there was any doubt.
Yes, Sterirti's run, and UNH's win, earned Chip Kelly's seal of approval.
The Manchester Central and UNH grad, former Wildcat offensive coordinator and Philadelphia Eagles head coach, was in the house to take in the latest triumph by coach Sean McDonnell's team.
And what a triumph it was.
UNH needed a win to keep its playoff hopes alive and got one in decisive fashion behind a defense that played its best game in years and an offense that forged a lead when being directed by one of its banged-up quarterbacks, and put it away when led by the other.
"The defense was unbelievable," Steriti said. "I'm still in awe. I've been here four years and I think that's the best performance by the defense I've seen. Three points against the team that is No. 4 in the country and was undefeated in the CAA."
Defensive coordinator John Lyons called it the best game he's seen the defense play in his three years.
"We told the guys this was a team that didn't beat themselves," Lyons said. "We told them we can't beat ourselves with foolish penalties like we've had in some games and we had to get some turnovers. We had to get the ball back to our offense and that's tough against these guys."
Maine senior quarterback Marcus Wasilewski has been the picture of efficiency all season.
He had thrown 23 touchdown passes and had been intercepted just six times coming into the game.
Then numbers had been even more tilted in recent weeks. He had thrown 14 touchdown passes in the course of six games since his last pick on Sept. 28.
Maine had not had a turnover of any kind in its last four games.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Casey DeAndrae picked off a Wasilewski pass late in the first half, but UNH was unable to capitalize on it.
Junior linebacker Shane McNeely sacked Wasilewski late in the third quarter and slapped the ball away and senior defensive tackle Sean McCann recovered.
"He doesn't turn the ball over," DeAndrade said. "To get two on him was huge for us."
More huge was turning the second turnover into a touchdown. McCann recovered the ball on the Maine 20-yard line. Three plays later sophomore Sean Goldrich, who had come on to replace starter Andy Vailas, connected with Jimmy Giansante crossing to the right in the endzone for a 6-yard TD.
"Great job by Sean to step up and find Jimmy on the cross," McDonnell said.
Steriti scored on the next UNH series to put the game out of reach.
The Wildcats spoiled Maine's bid for CAA perfection and celebrated at midfield with the coveted Brice-Cowell musket that will spend at least another 365 days or so in the UNH locker room until the teams meet late next season in Orono.
The Wildcats will find out this morning if they collect another prize out of the win.
They took out the No. 4 team in the country and got to 7-4 overall and 6-2 in the CAA and all that, along with the way they finished out the season should be enough to get them into the FCS tournament for a 10th straight season, they figure.
The guy on the 25-yard line no doubt agrees.
Kelly addressed the team on the field after practice on Friday night,
Vailas said. Few knew Kelly was around when he stepped up after the captains closed out Senior Week with their post-practice speeches.
"He gave us a great speech yesterday and talked about the New Hampshire way and how it's helped him," Vailas said. "He talked about how Coach Mac really knows what he's doing. He loves it here and he delivered a great message."
The Wildcats proceeded to deliver a message about their worthiness for the FCS tournament against Maine.
They hope the FCS Selection Committee received it.