UNH set to make most of its playoff return on Saturday
DURHAM – This is why they came back.
They came back for moments like Saturday’s thrilling, nail-biter of a 42-41 overtime win over Maine in Alfond Stadium that earned the University of New Hampshire football team some serious hardware, bragging rights and the chance to practice a few more days and play at least one more game.
For moments like the aftermath of the Saturday’s instant classic when they got to celebrate with the Brice-Cowell Musket on the field and later with not only the trusty firearm but with the Colonial Athletic Association championship trophy in the lobby of the Alfond hockey rink that on football game days serves as the de facto locker room for visiting teams.
First-year head coach Rick Santos loudly and proudly lauded the team’s turnaround from a frustrating 3-8 season in 2021 that ended with eight straight losses to an 8-3 mark in 2022 before introducing CAA commissioner Joey D’Antonio.
The league boss proceeded to present the league trophy – marking the first time the Wildcats had won a share of the league crown since 2014 – to Santos and first-year director of athletics Allison Rich.
And they came back for moments like Sunday’s get together in their own locker room on the basement level of the UNH Field House.
That’s where they watched early Sunday afternoon and the place erupted as it became official because ESPNU said it was so: The Wildcats are back in the NCAA Division I FCS tournament for the first time since 2017.
UNH will play Fordham, a potent 9-2 Patriot League team that scores more than 50 points a game, on Saturday at 2 p.m. in Wildcat Stadium in the first round of the FCS playoffs.
“It feels great,” said grad student defensive tackle and captain Niko Kvietkus. “That was my goal for this team once I got voted captain, to get all the trophies back in the locker room and make the playoffs. We’re at that point now and we’ve got to keep it going.”
Saturday’s winner between No. 15-ranked New Hampshire, 8-3 overall and 7-1 in the CAA, and No. 16 Fordham advances to the second round to play at Holy Cross, the No. 8 seed in the tournament, on Saturday, Dec. 3.
Yes, this is exactly why Kvietkus and receiver Brian Espanet, offensive lineman Patrick Flynn, and safety Pop Bush – the captains – chose to put a hold on the working world and come back with one objective in mind, to lift the program back to national prominence.
From 2004, when Santos grabbed the reins at quarterback as a redshirt freshman and – guided by head coach Sean McDonnell with an assist from offensive coordinator Chip Kelly – led the Wildcats to the second round of the FCS tournament, through 14 consecutive seasons, there was no FCS tournament played without the Wildcats.
It’s the second-longest stretch of playoff appearances ever.
A losing season in 2018 – when all four of the captains played their first games – ended the playoff run and was followed by a 2019 season when McDonnell was out on a medical leave and Santos as interim head coach led the team to a 6-5 record.
Then the pandemic hit. The 2020 season became a one-game campaign in the spring of 2021.
In the fall of 2021, the Wildcats started fast under McDonnell and won their first three games, but then dropped their last eight.
McDonnell retired after the season ended and Santos took over.
Flynn and Co. were determined to return and turn things around, get the program back to what they had seen in 2017, the year they sat out as true freshmen and the FCS tournament run ended after a couple more wins in a game at South Dakota State.
“It’s been awesome,” Flynn said. “There was a standard set before I got here. We had to find a way to re-set the standard and I think we’ve done that this year. It’s been amazing to be a part of it. Everyone counted us out and we found a way to win the CAA. That’s awesome. The job’s not finished though. We’ve still got a lot more to do.”
The Wildcats have been in playoff mode since November started. They needed two wins in their final three games to get to the magic number of eight victories needed to all but clinch an FCS bid.
They started slowly at Richmond, rallied and then lost when a Hail Mary throw by sophomore quarterback Max Brosmer fell to the ground in the end zone. Now they had to win their last two games.
They beat Rhode Island at home the next week on a 26-yard Brosmer to D.J. Linkins TD pass with 17 seconds left to play.
Then came Maine and a wild finish in overtime.
“The last three games . . . , “ Espanet said with a smile. “I don’t know why we can’t just close a game out. It has to be the greatest game ever.”
Fordham has all the potential of another wild one.
The Rams lead all of FCS in total offense at 612.1 yards per game and are second in scoring offense at 50.2 points a game. The Rams finished 9-2 overall and were 5-1 in the Patriot League.
To add a little spice to the proceedings, Fordham head coach Joe Conlin spent seven years as an assistant coach with the defensive line at UNH starting in 2004, coinciding with Santos’ first year at quarterback.
Plus, Fordham offensive coordinator Kevin Decker, who puts the prolific Ram offense together, was a backup to Santos at UNH and then was the CAA’s Offensive Player of the Year in 2011 while leading the Wildcats to yet another playoff berth.
So yes, this is why the captains came back and why, Santos noted, players come to Durham in the first place: to play for championships in meaningful games in November.
The Wildcats secured a couple of titles at Maine and will begin the quest for the biggest yet on Saturday.
Before the Wildcats packed up their trophy and the musket and rolled out of Orono, Santos in a postgame press conference praised the work of his staff, in particular offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Brian Scott and associate head coach and defensive coordinator Garrett Gillick – both former University of Maine players by the way.
He cited the play and poise of Brosmer, running back Dylan Laube’s explosive day and linebacker Bryce Shaw’s timely interception on Maine’s two-point conversion attempt the last play of the day.
He was then asked to put the win, the comeback season, into perspective.
“It means everything,” Santos said. “This program’s been my entire life, dating back. I’ve got to give credit to Sean McDonnell. Seeing him go out that way, it almost puts tears in my eyes, to be honest. A Hall of Fame coach, I know his career didn’t end the way he wanted it to: A lot of this is for him as well. He was a part of this. Most of these guys came here because of Coach Mac. For us to flip it from 3-8 and go 8-3, I’m just so proud of the resolve of these young men.”
Santos bounced back to the 2018 season that opened with a loss at Maine.
“We talked about it last night at the team meeting,” he said. “You know, in 2018 Maine was the reason, ultimately, why our demise happened. They knocked out Trevor Knight, who was preseason player of the year, with a high ankle sprain. We didn’t play well that year, didn’t make the playoffs and subsequently, it’s been four, five years. We felt like to make everything right in the universe, we needed to come up here, we had to beat them on their home turf and find a way to get back and get a postseason bid.”