Allen Lessels' UNH Notebook: Defense drives Wildcats' bus -- all the way to Orono
DURHAM -- Now they can think - and talk - about the Black Bears. Again.
New Hampshire senior defensive end Jay Colbert blew past the Lafayette left tackle and chased down quarterback Drew Reed for a sack on the first play of Saturday's FCS first-round tournament game in Cowell Stadium.
That's the kind of sunny, chilly and crushing afternoon it was for the Leopards.
A surging and sack-happy defense took charge early and the Wildcats had complete control of the game at halftime on the way to a 45-7 win over the Patriot League champions in front of 3,286 fans.
UNH improved to 8-4 and the triumph set up a high-stakes showdown next Saturday at 2 p.m. in Orono against No. 10-ranked Maine. The winner of the second-round tournament game will advance to the quarterfinals.
The Wildcats beat Maine last week, 24-3, in Durham to earn their spot in the playoffs. Maine is 10-2 and had been undefeated in the Colonial Athletic Association until running into New Hampshire.
"The big thing is, going up there it's going to be the ultimate challenge for us to beat a team twice in one season, to beat our arch-rival twice in one season," said UNH coach Sean McDonnell. "But the great thing is, like I told the guys, we're going. We're going and we've got another day to play. We're going to be on the bus next week driving up to Orono and we have an opportunity to play."
An aggressive and disruptive defense combined with a productive and opportunistic offense led by sophomore Sean Goldrich took care of Lafayette and earned the Wildcats a December bus ride up Interstate 95.
Lafayette finished 5-7 but had won four of its five games since freshman Reed took over at quarterback.
He had been super-efficient with the ball, and UNH coaches thought as they game-planned that they might be able to cause him some problems if they could get pressure on him and force him out of the pocket.
"I really thought that we'd be able to get after the quarterback," said defensive coordinator John Lyons.
Did they ever.
The Wildcats sacked Reed 10 times in the game, six in the first half, as they opened up a 31-0 lead.
No one did it better then Colbert, who is 6-foot-1 and 258 pounds.
He had three sacks for the season coming into the game. He had three Saturday, including the opening play of the game, which set a tone.
"That was a good sign," Lyons said with a smile.
Lafayette coach Frank Tavani, for good reason, saw it from the other side.
"That was probably the main problem," Tavani said. "Our left tackle is an all-conference player and he just couldn't handle him (Colbert). It's one of those things. There's not a lot you can do. You can't put three guys over there to block him. And when that happens, you have to credit the opponent."
Colbert had plenty of help, too.
Nine players total, including junior linebacker Shane McNeely with a sack and a half and junior defensive tackle Matt Kaplan of Franklin, had at least half a sack for the Wildcats.
"They were aggressive and incredibly physical up front," said Lafayette senior left guard and captain Brad Bormann. "They were just big, strong dudes. That's all there is to it."
Most of the sacks were timely, too.
In addition, the UNH defense held Lafayette to a 3-for-15 conversion rate on third down and 0-for-3 on fourth down.
Now it's on to Orono.
The Wildcats are in the playoffs for a best-in-the-nation 10th straight season, but they have not won two games in any of those years.New Hampshire had an edge when it came to intangibles last week. Besides playing at home, the Wildcats had to win to keep playing football this season.
The home-field advantage switches to Maine on Saturday and the motivation is even-up, though Maine is certainly looking for payback.
Each team is playing for its tournament life with a spot in the quarterfinals on the line.
"We get to go back to the rivalry once more," said junior wide receiver R.J. Harris, who had eight catches for 173 yards. "I think it's the first time in some years we've got to play Maine twice in the same year."
Some years indeed.
Just once before, in fact, have UNH and Maine played two games in a season, and it's been a while.
Maine won the first game in the series, 18-0, in Orono on Sept. 16, 1903. Maine took the rematch a month later, 27-0, in a game played in Dover.
"1903?" Harris said and laughed. "It's good to be a part of this. Hopefully we come out 2-0 on top of them this year."
firstname.lastname@example.org On Twitter: @AllenLessels