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Every year, a tough act to follow for UNH
The offense features a new quarterback with one season to show what he can do as a starter, a tight end looking to make up for a relatively lost season and a renewed commitment to playing at a fast and furious pace.
The defense lines up a couple of guys who are coming off breakout seasons — statistically among the best in team history — and have been collecting boatloads of pre-season accolades.
Starting on Thursday night at Toledo, the University of New Hampshire will embark on arguably its toughest schedule ever and set out on a mission to continue a run of football success unequaled at the school.
“We definitely want to go further than we have, that’s the ultimate goal,” said Kevin Decker, the first-year starter at quarterback and a co-captain. “But right now the goal is to beat the I-A team, Toledo, because that goes so far in terms of the playoffs.”
Where the Wildcats have been is to the NCAA playoffs for Football Championship Subdivision teams for the last seven years. That streak is unmatched in the country.
The honors, the string of tournament appearances, the No. 10 ranking in the nation among FCS teams and a Colonial Athletic Association-best 97 consecutive weeks ranked in The Sports Network/Fathead.com Top 25 poll mean little today.
“All this stuff right now is because somebody did something last year,” said UNH coach Sean McDonnell. “Nobody did anything this year … It doesn’t mean anything until you get through the first couple of weeks.”
Check back, McDonnell said, after a challenging start that features the Wildcats playing at Toledo, a Football Bowl Subdivision team picked to win the Mid-American Conference; then at Lehigh, picked to win the Patriot League; then at Richmond, a CAA rival.
Check back after UNH finally plays a home game on Oct. 1 and then has Villanova at home the next week, followed by games at William & Mary and against Massachusetts at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., on Oct. 22, and home against Rhode Island the next week.
“Let’s get to the end of October, early November, and if we’re sitting here talking about having a chance, then we’re doing OK,” McDonnell said.
The task is to once again land a spot in the 16-team NCAA playoffs, to once again be playing football in December.
Six times in those last seven years, including last season, the quest for a national championship ended in the quarterfinals and these Wildcats want more.
“Our goal is to make the playoffs and, of course, make it past the quarterfinals,” said junior wide receiver Joey Orlando.
First, they must contend with the Rockets of Toledo.
They’ll try to do that with a defensive front led by senior defensive end Brian McNally, who had a school-record 13 1/2 sacks, and junior linebacker Matt Evans, whose 156 tackles were second-best in the nation and school history, keeping some of the pressure off a young and inexperienced defensive backfield.
“The secondary has got to come through for us,” McDonnell said. “The young guys have got to play.”
Rod Walker, a senior from Portsmouth, is an older guy who will step in and start at one of the hybrid defensive back/linebacker spots.
The offense will have Decker passing to guys such as Orlando, who had 50 catches as a sophomore, and senior tight end Chris Jeannot, who missed most of last season with concussion issues after having a huge game in a loss to Pittsburgh.
It will have junior Dontra Peters, who gained 707 yards last season, sophomore Chris Setian and redshirt freshmen Nico Steriti and Jimmy Owens running behind an offensive line that is still young, but has a bunch of guys who have started and played a lot.
Seamus O’Neill, a sophomore out of Manchester Central, is penciled in at left tackle but has been rehabbing from a sprained knee and may not start on Thursday.
The entire offense will be charged with picking up the pace.
“Coach is still not satisfied with our tempo,” Decker said. “If we play fast, it’s a big advantage for us. They’re not going to be set. It lets the line really roll through their gaps and knock them back and give Dontra and ‘Sets’ and Nico more room to run the ball.”
The offense played at a fast pace under former offensive coordinator Chip Kelly of Manchester, now the coach at Oregon, and has played quickly at times since then, but had gotten a little away from that style the past couple of years.
Now McDonnell and offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey look to speed things up again with familiar and lofty goals — and backing up some of the pre-season hype — in mind.
“I think we take great pride in all those accolades and everything,” McDonnell said. “But this is a whole new ball of wax and we’ve got to find our team’s identity, which I’m not sure right now. Hopefully I’ll know a little bit more after Thursday night.”
By ALLEN LESSELS, New Hampshire Union Leader