UNH faces tough challenge vs. Lehigh’s offense
DURHAM – The University of New Hampshire defense will be under attack from all angles on Saturday afternoon in Wildcat Stadium.
No. 21 New Hampshire and No. 15 Lehigh University, the Patriot League champion, square off at 2 p.m. in an NCAA Division I FCS first-round tournament game with everything on the line.
The season will be over for the team that loses the game. The winner advances to play a second-round game at James Madison, the No. 5 seed in the tournament, on Saturday Dec. 3.
UNH is playing in the FCS tournament for a national-best 13th straight season and was 7-4 overall and 6-2 in the Colonial Athletic Association during the regular season.
Lehigh has a 9-2 overall record, went 6-0 in the Patriot League and won its last nine games.
The Mountain Hawks boast some of the best offensive numbers – and most productive players – in the country.
Their 40.5 points a game rank sixth in the FCS and their total offense of 491.5 yards a game is seventh. The offense features a quarterback, senior Nick Shafnisky, who has passed for 20 touchdowns and run for 10, a 1,000-yard rusher and a pair of receivers who have caught more than 1,000 yards worth of passes.
"They have a lot of playmakers on the offensive side of the ball," said UNH senior linebacker and captain Ryan Farrell. "Their quarterback really makes things go. They have a few receivers that are really talented kids. Their running back is a 1,000-yard rusher. So we’re going to have our hands full, but the coaches have done a good job of explaining things and putting us in a position to be successful. We just have to capitalize, take to the coaching and display it on the field Saturday."
Lehigh’s Shafnisky has passed for 2,448 yards and has thrown five interceptions. Sophomore running back Dominick Bragalone has rushed for 1,106 yards and 13 touchdowns. Junior wide receiver Troy Pelletier has caught 88 passes for 1,140 yards and 11 touchdowns and classmate Gatlin Casey has 14 catches for 1,098 and 14 scores.
The UNH defense has scored nearly as many defensive touchdowns as Lehigh has committed turnovers. The Mountain Hawks have the fewest turnovers in the FCS with eight.
The Wildcats lead the FCS in defensive touchdowns with seven, two on fumble recoveries returned for TDs and five interception returns.
Freshman Prince Smith Jr. with two interception returns for scores, and senior cornerback Casey DeAndrade, junior safety D’Andre Drummond-Mayrie, junior defensive tackle Ryan Sosnak, sophomore linebacker Jared Kuehl and freshman safety Pop Lacey with one each have the defensive scores.
On the other side of the ball, the Wildcats will look to hang onto the ball. They have turned it over once in each of the last five games for a total of five. They had 15 turnovers combined in their first six games.
Senior quarterback Adam Riese, who came on in relief of injured starter Trevor Knight and led UNH to a 24-21 win at Maine last Saturday, is expected to get the start against Lehigh. UNH coach Sean McDonnell plans to have Knight available as a backup.
UNH and Lehigh have some history.
This year’s senior class dropped a 34-27 decision at Lehigh on Sept. 28, 2013. The Wildcats got some revenge the next year with a 45-27 win at home on Sept. 13.
UNH linebacker DeVaughn Chollette had an interception in the 2014 game, Farrell had four tackles and DeAndrade three tackles and three pass breakups.
Shafnisky ran for one score and passed for another in the game in Durham and Pelletier caught two scoring passes.
This is the fourth straight season UNH has played a home game against a Patriot League team – and the fourth different Patriot League team – in its first tournament game.
UNH beat Lafayette, 45-7, in 2013, knocked off Fordham, 44-19, in 2014 and lost to Colgate, 27-20, last year.
The Wildcats say they learned from last season’s setback against Colgate. Like this year, the winning team was pegged to play in the next round at James Madison.
His team got caught looking ahead a bit last November, said UNH senior running back Dalton Crossan shortly after the playoff field was announced Sunday morning.
There will be none of that this year, UNH senior linebacker and captain Ryan Farrell said.
"We have to do our job against Lehigh," he said. "That’s all we’re looking forward to. Last year we laid an egg and our goal is to not do that. Our goal is to beat Lehigh and that’s the only thing we can focus on right now. … I’m glad we can play in front of our fans. I’m grateful for that."