|« Sempier still gets a kick out of coaching||Football team remains optimistic despite preseason ranking »|
UNH football braces for stiffer schedule
As respectful as he is of every opponent, coach Sean McDonnell nevertheless knew what it meant for the University of New Hampshire football team when Northeastern and Hofstra dropped the sport and Dartmouth suspended the series with its intra-state rival — a more challenging schedule.
Northeastern and Hofstra were in the North Division of the Colonial Athletic Association, where the South Division is considered the tougher of the two. Consequently, the Wildcats will play every team in the restructured CAA this year except Delaware.
That includes games on the road against defending national champion Villanova and James Madison, and home contests against Richmond, and William and Mary. Instead of two divisions, the CAA will operate as a 10-team league in 2010.
Villanova, William and Mary, UNH and Richmond are all ranked in the top 10 nationally in several FCS preseason polls.
“If there’s any year we’ve talked about a one-week season, this is it,” McDonnell said last week as the Wildcats began preseason training camp. “We’ve got to be able to embrace that week and go after the team we’re playing. After the game — win, lose or draw — we’ve got to let it go and go on to the next one because there are no breaks in the schedule.”
Indeed, the slate will put the Wildcats’ focus to the test. The nonconference schedule has also been upgraded with the addition of Lehigh of the Patriot League and Pittsburgh, which finished 15th in the FBS national poll last season and features sophomore running back Dion Lewis.
After gaining almost 1,800 yards last season as a freshman, the 5-foot-8 195-pounder was named Big East offensive player of the year. That total ranks second in school history behind Tony Dorsett’s 2,150 in 1976 en route to the Heisman Trophy.
“Our schedule has always been difficult,” said quarterback and senior co-captain R.J. Toman. “Year in and year out we always talk about getting to the next level and what we have to do to accomplishment our goals and that is to play that type of schedule. It prepares us for the postseason and what we’re aiming for and eventually being national champions because that’s our ultimate goal.”
UNH plays the Panthers at Heinz Field in Week 2 after opening at home against Central Connecticut State on Sept. 4. The Wildcats’ five-game win streak against FBS foes appears in jeopardy, with Pitt a cut above their previous opponents at that level.
It’s one of two games UNH will play this season at NFL venues. The other is Oct. 23 against Massachusetts at Gillette Stadium, which will be hosting its first college game.
“Every year we play guys from the South and every year we have a tough schedule in the CAA, which we like to say is the best conference in all of I-AA football,” said running back and senior co-captain Sean Jellison. “It just means we have an opportunity to play better teams throughout the entire season and challenge ourselves week in and week out.”
As far as cornerback Dino Vasso is concerned, nothing has changed.
“It’s going to be a good challenge for us,” said Vasso, a senior co-captain, “but no different than usual. We have the same outlook and the same expectations.”
The Wildcats are coming off a 10-3 season and their sixth consecutive Division I playoff appearance. They also reached the quarterfinals for the fifth time in six years in 2009, losing to Villanova, 46-7. UNH was the only team to beat Villanova during the regular season.
The Wildcats, who captured the North Division title last year, open their CAA schedule Sept. 18 at Rhode Island. The Maine game, which has been last on the regular season schedule for the past decade, has been moved up. UNH plays the Black Bears in Orono on Oct. 2 at 6 p.m.
In preparation for a grueling schedule, many players stayed in Durham over the summer to work out, and McDonnell — entering his 12th season as head coach — was pleased with the results.
“Everybody that was on campus and everybody that stayed within range of our program passed the conditioning test,” he said. “That’s probably the best testing conditioning-wise we’ve had here since I’ve been the head coach. I’m excited where we are physically.”
UNH football braces for stiffer schedule
By AL PIKE, Foster’s Daily Democrat (NH)