Allen Lessels's UNH Notebook: Wildcat pride until the end
THE bulk of the folks watching on ESPN2 had no doubt moved on to other viewing options.
North Dakota State University, the two-time defending FCS champion, was putting the finishing touches on yet another impressive win and well on its way to a third straight appearance in the national title game.
The University of New Hampshire football team was not quite done.
The Wildcat offense drove to the Bison 1-yard line in the closing minutes and the battle was on.
The Bison defense stuffed senior running back Chris Setian for no gain. Then it stuffed sophomore quarterback Sean Goldrich for no gain.
Finally, Setian got the ball again and followed left tackle Seamus O'Neill, the senior out of Manchester, into the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown, his eighth score of the season, with 29 seconds to play.
The score meant little in the grand scheme of things.
It set the final margin at way too much to way too little - 52-14 - but constituted a small victory for the Wildcats.
The offense had pushed in its only touchdown of the day against a smothering North Dakota State defense. Remarkably, the Bison had allowed only one other fourth-quarter touchdown all season.
"We were playing for pride at that point," O'Neill said. "That was our motto on the sidelines. All the seniors were like, 'We've got to show everybody that we can compete like that.' There were some misplays, but we're not a team that's going to just back down."
Make no mistake, this was a prideful group of Wildcats.
They took pride in the way they rallied after losing three of their first four games. Took pride in the way that rally and winning six of their last seven games earned them a spot in the FCS playoffs for a nation's best 10 straight years, a streak that was in serious jeopardy in early October.
They took pride in first beating Lafayette and then Maine, for the second time in two weeks, in the playoffs which gave them two wins in the same tournament for the first time ever.
They followed up with a 45-7 win in the quarterfinals at Southeastern Louisiana last week to advance to the semifinals for the first time.
But then they ran into a Bison buzzsaw indoors in frigid Fargo on Friday night. A raucous crowd of 18,694 - maybe 18,494 of them dressed in yellow and green - rocked the Fargodome.
The Bison rocked the Wildcats.
"Every which way but loose," said UNH coach Sean McDonnell. "They beat us in every phase of the game."
The NDSU defense gave Goldrich, the running backs and receivers little room to operate. The Wildcats turned the ball over three times, twice on Goldrich interceptions and another time when the crowd noise harried the quarterback and he was unable to handle a center snap and the resulting fumble was returned 7 yards for a touchdown.
UNH had not turned the ball over more than once in a game since it also had three in its last loss, 17-0, at William & Mary on Nov. 2.
The Wildcats managed only 184 yards of offense - way off their average of 450 yards and their previous low this season of 312, also against William & Mary.
"I give them all the credit," Goldrich said. "They were a very talented team, everything we expected them to be. We just couldn't execute on the offensive side of the ball. I thought early on the defense played well, but we weren't able to put points on the board to give them some rest. They were on the field a lot more than we were."
UNH got off to a fast start, thanks to a Steven Thames interception return of a Brock Jensen pass for a touchdown and then a fumble recovery by Casey DeAndrade on the second Bison possession.
The success was short-lived, and the Bison started picking up a lot of yards, large chunks at a time.
Jensen threw for three passes, and 350 of his team's 509 total yards came on the ground. Junior running back John Crockett accounted for 195 yards on just 13 carries.
"They haven't lost a game in nearly two seasons for a reason," DeAndrade said. "I think what we had to do was not make mistakes and we made them. We kind of had to play not perfect football, but close to it."
They didn't. And they finished with a 10-5 record.
The Bison won their 23th straight overall, improved to 14-0 and now move on to Frisco, Texas, to play the winner of Saturday's Towson at Eastern Washington semifinal contest in the championship game on Saturday, Jan. 4.
That's the game UNH wants to get to - and win.
"We always go into the season knowing it's tradition to make the playoffs at UNH," O'Neill said. "We got past the quarterfinal hump. It sets a new standard for the football team and that's what we're always trying to do. We're trying to raise the bar and I guess the next step is to make it back to the semifinals for these next guys and actually get to the national championship."
The 2014 quest for a national title begins with a road game at Toledo on Aug. 30.
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