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UNH Has Score to Settle With Northern Iowa
DURHAM — It’s not concerned with the next level, only the next game. For the University of New Hampshire football team, that’s one in the same Saturday night (7) when the Wildcats take on Northern Iowa in the playoffs for the third time in four years.
“All we talk about is the next one,” said UNH coach Sean McDonnell. “Different team. Different year. We’ve got to keep the focus on that the whole time. There’s not one kid in this program who wouldn’t like to be playing a week from Saturday. But we can’t think about past failures. We’ve got to think about how we’re going beat Northern Iowa.”
With last week’s 29-20 victory over Southern Illinois in the first round, UNH advanced to the quarterfinals for the fourth time in five years. With a win over the Panthers, the Wildcats can reach the semifinals for the first time. To take that elusive next step, however, No. 10 UNH (10-2) must beat the No. 4 Panthers (11-2), who ousted the Wildcats last year in the first round, 38-35, on a touchdown pass with seven seconds left.
“Four of the last five years we’ve made it to the quarterfinals and not moved on,” said senior tri-captain Mike Boyle. “Every year we’re looking to do better than we did the previous year. This year is no different.”
The quarterback who threw that clutch pass is gone, replaced by junior Pat Grace, who likes to run the ball and engineers an offense that features the program’s all-time leading rusher, Corey Lewis. He operates behind an offensive line that averages more than 300 pounds per man. Lewis rushed for 220 yards and three touchdowns last year against UNH.
“This is the biggest team we’ve faced all year across the front on both sides of the ball, and the most physical,” McDonnell said. “They’re going to run the football and we’ve got to stop it.”
Grace, Lewis and Derrick Law have combined for 2,427 yards on the ground and 28 rushing touchdowns. Not only can the Panthers run the ball, they can stop it. They have allowed only 1,369 yards on the ground. Defensive linemen Jeremy Robertson, Everette Pedescleaux and James Ruffin have combined for 37.5 tackles for loss and 20 sacks.
“We’ve got to find a way to move the ball offensively, running and passing, to keep them off-balance,” McDonnell said.
“They’re a physical team,” Boyle said, “and they all run to the ball really well.”
Northern Iowa moved on with a 40-15 win over Maine last week in the first round. Of the eight remaining teams, four are from the Colonial Athletic Association, including top-seeded James Madison, Richmond and Villanova. JMU hosts Villanova on Saturday and Richmond plays at No. 2 Appalachian State, the three-time defending national champion.
UNH quarterback R.J. Toman will try to rebound from a subpar performance at Southern Illinois in which he threw three interceptions in his first college playoff game and missed a couple open receivers in the end zone. One of the interceptions hit the umpire and another bounced off Boyle’s hands.
“I sucked,” said Toman. “I played very poorly. My throws were off. I wasn’t accurate all day … and as a result we struggled as an offense.”
The last time Toman struggled (in a 24-13 loss at Villanova), he bounced back with four TD passes in a 52-21 rout of Massachusetts.
“R.J.’s a competitor,” said Boyle, who had seven catches for 131 yards last week. “He’s a good quarterback. He does a real good job of forgetting. He’s got a short memory of the bad things that happen. He doesn’t dwell on things. He stays calm. I think he’ll do well this weekend.”
Despite four turnovers, the Wildcats found a way to win last week. UNH had three takeaways — giving it 20 in the last five games — and John Clements returned a blocked punt 26 yards for a touchdown. Tom Bishop booted five field goals to set a school record. He also tied an FCS playoff mark.
UNH has won six of its last seven games and three in a row. Northern Iowa has won nine straight following a 2-2 start. The Panthers’ last loss came at Southern Illinois more than two months ago. The Panthers other setback came in the season opener at Brigham Young, 41-17. Northern Iowa is 7-0 at the UNI-Dome, which seats more than 16,000.
The Wildcats are 6-1 on the road this season and 3-3 in road playoff games over the past five years. UNI knocked off top-ranked UNH in the quarters three years ago, 24-21, at Cowell Stadium.
“These kids have always wanted to prove to a lot of people they’re a good football team,” said McDonnell, “and I think they’ve done that already with 10 wins and a quarterfinal appearance. But you get a sense with these guys when you watch them practice they want to take the next step. They know how important the next one is.”
‘Cats sharpen their claws: UNH has score to settle with Northern Iowa
By Al Pike, The Fosters’ Daily Democrat (NH)
Photo Credit: Josh Gibney/The Fosters’ Daily Democrat