Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Know Your 2014 Opponents: New Hampshire

Ever think that, sometimes, it takes all the stars to align for an upset victory?

In Lehigh's 34-27 win over New Hampshire last season, it felt like that could have been the case.

The Wildcats were a young team with somewhat dampened expectations, coming to Murray Goodman stadium to try to find themselves.  Meanwhile, Lehigh, fresh off one of the most improbable Mountain Hawk wins ever, their 29-28 win over Princeton, had momentum and confidence to spare.

While Lehigh is expected to lose to supposedly "full-scholarship" teams from the CAA, everything seemed to align - the weather, the home game, and a Wildcat team that was still a work-in-progress.

But the stars aligning for Lehigh last year, however, makes for a much steeper challenge in 2014.


Lehigh was 2-11 against UNH in the schools' history going into last year's game, their last win in Durham taking place in 1979, a year when the Engineers made the I-AA playoffs, then in its infancy.

Last season, the Wildcats, who pulled things together in a big way after leaving South Bethlehem, made a deep run in the playoffs, only falling to eventual national champions North Dakota State in the ThunderDome in the semifinals.

(Along the way, they hosted Lafayette in the first round, and thoroughly dominated the Leopards 45-7 in a game that could have been way, way worse.)

Thanks to that run and a large returning core of players, UNH enters the season at No. 4 in the preseason FCS coaches' poll, which would seem to guarantee that the Wildcats will be prohibitive favorites when Lehigh travels there this season.

"We're a blue-collar, hard-hat lunchbucket type of place," head coach Sean McDonnell said at CAA Media day, "The kids that we have recruited have really embraced the opportunity to continue on the legacy and carry on the tradition.  We started off 1-3, but the kids' makeup allowed us to turn things around in the middle of the season."


Only seven seniors graduate from last year's team which would seem to indicate that many of the players who lost last year to Lehigh will be taking the field this September against them.

Both signalcallers, QB Andy Vailas (1,392 yards passing, 172 yards rushing, 11 TDs) and QB Sean Goldrich (2,076 yards passing, 417 yards rushing, 20 TDs), both return.

When UNH played Lehigh last season, Vailas was the "starter", even though Goldrich would come in on several series.  As the season progressed, though, Goldrich took more and more snaps as UNH blossomed into a great team.

"Andy might be used in our offense in a couple of other positions at times," McDonnell said.  "We're going to need two quarterbacks because we run the quarterback and move him around.  I feel very comfortable with both players."

They lose one key target, WR Justin Mello, but return WR R.J. Harris, who had 1,000 yards receiving and over 100 yards rushing last year in the Wildcats' balanced, frantic, creative offense.

Folks know when you play UNH you're going to face more than eighty offensive plays and a clockwork, quickly-executed offense.  What put UNH over the top last season, though, was their aggressive 4-2-5 defense.

LB Akil Anderson and LB Shane McNeely became a near-impossible combination to stop on blitzes, combining for an eye-popping 244 tackles and 11 1/2 sacks.  Against Lehigh last season, they combined for 20 tackles, but no sacks.

That was thanks to some adjustments that allowed the Wildcat defense to "play faster," according to UNH snoop Allen Lessels.

“We spent the offseason looking at everything we did and trying to evaluate that and we were looking at some things we saw when we looked at other people,” said defensive coordinator John Lyons. “We’re trying to really simplify what we’re doing. We changed some schemes and did some of that last year and want to do it even more so.”
The Wildcats will look to play faster and harder and continue to try and limit big plays and strive to get turnovers to get the ball back to the offense as quickly as possible.

With eight of eleven defensive starters returning, including Anderson and McNeely, the prospect of an even-faster defense will be a huge challenge for Lehigh to handle.



Lehigh will be UNH's home opener, two weeks after the Wildcats open their season in Toledo, Ohio, to take on the Rockets.  UNH has forged a reputation for being an FBS killer, thanks to their wins over Northwestern, Rutgers, Marshall and Army in the 2000s.

UNH's 28-10 win over Army in 2008 was one of the more dominating FCS wins over an FBS team I've ever seen.  At no time did it seem like Army was close to winning that game.

Lehigh's last trip to Durham also didn't go very well for the Mountain Hawks, either, a 31-10 blowout win for the Wildcats.

“We knew we were playing a very good football team here, one that’s traditionally top teams in FCS football,” said visibly frustrated coach Andy Coen in the official game recap. “When you play a team like that you have to take advantage of the opportunities presented to you. They presented a lot of opportunities to us. The defense created turnovers. We had a big kick return on a great individual effort. Offensively, we just weren’t able to take advantage of any of those opportunities with the exception of one. You’re not going to beat many teams when you do those things.”
When UNH played Lehigh last season, the stars aligned perfectly for the Mountain Hawks to beat the Wildcats at home.  If Lehigh were to repeat the feat this year, they will be going against the voters in the FCS Coaches' poll, their history of playing in Durham - and, perhaps, even the stars.

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