UNH football team now battle tested
DURHAM – The payoff is in the playoffs.
This time of year strength of schedule becomes important for getting into the postseason and then succeeding once you get there.
In that regard, the University of New Hampshire football team couldn’t have asked for a much better closing stretch in preparation for what lies ahead.
The Wildcats’ last three regular-season games were against James Madison, Towson and Maine. All three made the FCS playoffs. UNH went 2-1 in those contests, beating JMU and Maine and losing to CAA regular-season champ Towson.
“In all three of those weeks we played top-flight competition in our conference,” coach Sean McDonnell said. “That helps you when you get to the playoffs.”
The Wildcats also beat Lehigh on the road early in the year. It remains the only blemish on the Mountain Hawks’ record.
Lehigh went on to win the Patriot League regular-season title and will visit Towson in the second round of the FCS playoffs Saturday.
UNH went 3-1 against tournament teams this season.
“It’s definitely a huge advantage for us playing in the CAA,” quarterback Kevin Decker said. “To get where you want to go you’re going to have to beat those teams.”
The No. 11 Wildcats (8-3) travel to No. 7 Montana State (9-2) on Saturday (3 p.m.) for a second-round game. Both clubs received first-round byes.
UNH welcomed the break. The players returned to campus Sunday to begin getting ready for the Bobcats, who were in line to get the No. 1 overall seed until losing their regular-season finale, 36-10, at home against rival Montana.
That snapped a nine-game win streak. Montana State dropped its opener at bowl division Utah.
The Wildcats practiced in full pads Sunday. They plan to leave for Montana after practice on Thursday.
“We had a pretty quick, fast-paced practice,” McDonnell said. “The kids were very focused. The antennas are up, knowing we’re one of 16 teams left in the national tournament.”
They’re also one of five teams still alive from the Colonial Athletic Association. James Madison and Old Dominion won first-round games last Saturday while UNH, Maine and Towson received byes.
JMU went on the road and beat Eastern Kentucky, 20-17, on a field goal as time expired. Old Dominion defeated Norfolk State, 35-18, for the fledgling program’s first playoff win.
Maine, in the postseason for the first time since 2008, is at Appalachian State on Saturday.
In other first-round games, Stony Brook rallied to beat Albany, 31-28, and Central Arkansas won at Tennessee Tech. Stony Brook plays at top seed Sam Houston State on Saturday while Central Arkansas travels to No. 4 Montana.
“I watched some of the JMU-Eastern Kentucky game,” Decker said
The Wildcats are making their eighth consecutive appearance in the FCS playoffs, the longest active streak in the nation. In six of the previous seven years, they’ve opened on the road, winning five of those games, including a 45-20 victory over Bethune-Cookman last season.
That was Decker’s first playoff start. He replaced the injured R.J. Toman and passed for 289 yards and three touchdowns.
“It’s exciting,” he said, “but you can’t let nerves get the best of you, especially at the quarterback position. You have to keep your head.”
UNH, ranked eighth nationally in total offense, will try to move the ball against a Bobcat defense that led the Big Sky Conference in total defense and fewest points allowed.
Montana State was also the toughest team in the league to run against.
“Our mindset is we want to score every single time we get the ball,” Decker said. “You have no idea what kind of game it will be until you start playing it. Our goal is to score one more point than them.”
The Wildcats’ defense will be tested by a club that ranked 13th nationally in rushing and 10th in total offense. The Bobcats average 222.73 yards on the ground led by Cody Kirk, who has rushed for 1,233 yards and 14 touchdowns, and averages 5.8 yards per carry.
“The one thing we’ve got to do a good job of and the one thing we always talk about is stopping the run,” defensive end Brian McNally said.
“They’re a powerful running team. I think we’ve got to continue to improve on that.”
Dual-threat quarterback DeNarius McGhee has thrown for 2,360 yards and 22 scores with 10 interceptions. He’s also rushed for 244 yards and three TDs.
Leading receiver Elvis Akpla averages 19.2 yards per catch and 11 of his 49 receptions have gone for touchdowns.
“It all starts with the run,” McDonnell said, “and (McGhee) directs traffic very, very well. He’s a kid who has a great physical presence and great scrambling ability. He finds a way to extend plays and gets the ball to a variety of people.
“It’s a team that’s gotten better as the year’s gone on,” McDonnell added. “We’ll have to play extremely well on the road out there in Montana.”