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December 12. 2013 9:59PM

Allen Lessels' UNH Notebook: Wildcats have come a long way


New Hampshire Wildcats head coach Sean McDonnell during the second half against the Lafayette Leopards at Cowell Stadium. (Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports)

DURHAM -- Just over two months ago, a game at Towson University got away from the University of New Hampshire football team. And got away badly.

The Wildcats raced to a 20-3 lead after one period. But Towson rolled to 24 unanswered points in the second period and 17 more in the third on the way to a no-doubt-about-it 44-28 win.

UNH was in trouble.

The Wildcats had a record of 1-3 and any hopes of a 10th straight appearance in the NCAA's FCS tournament were fading fast.

Fast forward two months and Sean McDonnell's team has already made a little school football history and is landing at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport this afternoon bound for Hammond, La., less than an hour away, and hoping to make a little more.

UNH, 9-4, plays Southeastern Louisiana University, 11-2, in Strawberry Stadium in Hammond on Saturday at 7 p.m. in an FCS quarterfinal round game.

"The great part about this is honestly the opportunity we have because we really didn't think much about this after that Towson game," said sophomore quarterback Sean Goldrich. "Sitting at 1-3, we're thinking, 'What type of team really are we? What are we capable of as a whole team, defense, offense, special teams?'"

As it turned out, they're a pretty darned good team, defense, offense, special teams.

Exactly what the Wildcats are capable of, remains to be seen. Saturday night's game will provide another answer.

"We put some games together, we started breaking things down one game at a time and next thing you know we're here and we have this chance to play for a national championship," Goldrich said. "You go into it, it's an exciting feeling. It's really just something special knowing how far we've come and now we're still playing football in December."

The Wildcats beat Rhode Island handily the week after Towson and then faced a major test against No. 12-ranked Villanova at home.

Villanova quarterback John Robertson ran roughshod over the Wildcats at times, but a young UNH defense also had its moments in that one and began to come of age.

Goldrich led a season-saving and perhaps season-defining touchdown drive in the last minute and when Chris Setian bulled his way in for a two-point conversion with 14 seconds left in the game, the Wildcats had a 29-28 win.

The Wildcat defense has just gotten better and better at stopping people and getting off the field on third down since Villanova.

UNH won three straight after Towson, lost 17-0 at William & Mary and then won its last three regular-season games — including a 24-3 win over No. 4-ranked Maine in the finale — to finish the regular season at 7-4.

The history came when the Wildcats beat Lafayette, 45-7, in their first-round tournament game and Maine again, 41-27, last Saturday in Orono.

For the first time, UNH has won two playoff games in the same FCS tournament.

The challenge now is to get past the quarterfinals. The Wildcats have never been to the semifinals.

They have played in the quarterfinals five times in this decade-long run in the playoffs and lost each time. They lost at Delaware, 16-3, in their most recent trip to the quarters in 2010.

Last year, UNH had a first-round bye and lost its second-round game to Wofford, 23-7. The team's only points that day came on a 14-yard fumble return for a TD by defensive end Cody Muller.

Offensive coordinator Ryan Carty and his crew will be out to improve on that showing on Saturday.

"As always, we'd like to be balanced," Carty said. "Whether the run sets up the pass or vice versa, we don't really care. I think we can establish the run a little better than we did the last couple of weeks. I hope we can."

Southeastern Louisiana tends to play a lot more man-to-man pass coverage in the secondary than UNH usually sees, Carty said.

The Lions held Sam Houston State to 3-for-19 passing in their 30-29 second-round win last week. Sam Houston had 287 yards rushing.

Junior quarterback Bryan Bennett, who played the last two seasons as a backup at Oregon under now-Philadelphia Eagles' coach Chip Kelly, directed an 85-yard, last-minute drive to the win last weekend.

The winner of Saturday's UNH-Southeastern Louisiana game earns a semifinal spot opposite either two-time defending champion North Dakota State or Coastal Carolina. Coastal Carolina, 12-2, plays at North Dakota State, 12-0, on Saturday at noon.

In Louisiana, meanwhile, the Wildcats look to make a little more history.

"The motivation also is there that are eight teams left and after Saturday there are going to be four," McDonnell said. "If we're one of those four standing, living for another day, that's going to be awesome."

- - - - --

THE men's basketball team, 2-6, takes on Stony Brook, 6-4 and one of the favorites win the America East, in its league opener on Sunday at 1 in Lundholm Gymnasium.Chris Pelcher, UNH's 6-foot-10 senior center, will miss the game and likely the next month. He broke a bone in his leg during practice last week and is expected to be out for about four weeks.

Pelcher, who missed the last two games, is averaging 13.7 points and 11.8 rebounds a game.

The women's basketball team takes its 4-4 record to Boston College for a game on Sunday at 3. The Eagles are 4-5.

UNH has a day-night doubleheader of sorts next Wednesday. The women play Cleveland State at noon in an "Education Day" contest.The men play Dartmouth on Wednesday night at 7.

alessels@unionleader.com


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