Late heroics carried Wildcats to semis
HAMMOND, La. — Nothing came easy in a Big Win just outside the Big Easy.
It was the type of game that stings — big-time and for a long, long time — if it gets away.
The seniors and leaders on the University of New Hampshire football team weren't going to let that happen on Saturday night at Strawberry Stadium on the campus of Southeastern Louisiana University.
Sophomore quarterback Sean Goldrich was outstanding and the UNH defense kept the Lions at bay much of the night, but the Wildcats needed a final minutes-drive to finally put the game away and knock off Southeastern Louisiana, 20-17, in the FCS quarterfinal match.
UNH advanced to its first-ever national tourney semifinal game and takes on North Dakota State in Fargo on Friday at 8 p.m. on ESPN2. The Bison have won the last two FCS titles.
Friday's winner advances to the national championship game in Frisco, Texas, on Jan. 4 and will play either Towson or Eastern Washington.
Towson, a Colonial Athletic Association team along with UNH, plays at Eastern Washington in the other semifinal on Saturday afternoon.
North Dakota State is the No. 1 seed for the tournament, Eastern Washington is No. 3, Towson is No. 7 and UNH is the only unseeded team left in the tournament.
UNH snapped No. 4 Southeastern's win streak at 10 games.
The Wildcats survived a tough night on special teams — "our special teams were horrible," said coach Sean McDonnell — a few costly penalties, a couple of dropped passes and an interception of a Goldrich pass in the end zone while they were trying to extend their lead to two scores early in the fourth quarter.
That was in addition to Southeastern's methodical march down the field on its first possession and its TD drive to take a 17-14 lead with 5:17 left in the game.
UNH did much right, too, starting with Goldrich and a defense that stuffed Southeastern's run game and especially junior quarterback Bryan Bennett, the touted transfer from Oregon who was the Southland Conference's Player of the Year.
"I think it was about being very, very well prepared," said senior safety Manny Asam. "It was basically our game plan to take away his first read and get him to move his feet around a little bit and give our D-line time to get there. I think it worked perfectly for us."
The Lions managed just 75 rushing yards on 35 attempts. Bennett was their leading rusher all season and carried 12 times for 29 yards.
Southeastern's longest run was for 12 yards and its longest pass was for 30.
Goldrich carried a career-high 21 times for a career-high 99 yards rushing and scored all three of UNH's touchdowns.
Junior wide receiver R.J. Harris caught 11 passes for 110 yards and senior Justin Mello had five for 84 yards. Junior running back Nico Steriti carried 14 times for 75 yards.
Asam and sophomore linebacker Akil Anderson each had 10 tackles for UNH.
UNH answered Southeastern's game-opening drive with a march of its own that ended with Goldrich's 32-yard TD run.
Goldrich scored on a 1-yard run and UNH took a 14-7 lead on a conversion kick by Mike MacArthur, a senior out of North Hampton, with 13:46 left in the second period.
The Lions cut it to 14-10 on a Seth Sebastian 22-yard field goal with 1:13 left in the second period.
The game heated up late in the fourth quarter.
Southeastern took the lead 17-14 on a Bennett-to-Marquis Fruge highlight-film 5-yard TD pass with 5:17 left in the game. Bennett escaped UNH defenders a few times before passing and his exploits made the play No. 1 on ESPN's Top 10 list plays of the day.
Goldrich and UNH answered with the winning drive. Goldrich had a couple of key runs, including a 6-yard gain on fourth and inches from the Southeastern 15-yard line.
"I swear it was as far as the side of a coin," Setian said. "That's how short it was."
Jimmy Giansante made a nice catch for seven yards to the 2-yard line and Goldrich ran the ball in on the next play.
The Lions, who had already blocked two MacArthur field goals, blocked the conversion kick to keep it a three-point game.
But Southeastern could not get close enough for a field goal and time ran out.
UNH survived a 71-yard kickoff return by Xavier Robertson and a 41-yard punt return by Devante Scott. The Lions did not score after either return. ... UNH had 203 yards rushing and 479 yards of offense.
to Southeastern's 344. ... The Lions converted 11 of 20 third-down chances and UNH was at 8-for-15.