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Know Your 2013 Opponents: New Hampshire

In the run-up to the game versus New Hampshire, you can bet New Hampshire head coach Sean McDonnell and Lehigh head coach Andy Coen will want to talk about lots of things.

The Wildcats lead off the year against an FBS squad, Central Michigan, and the defending Patriot League champions, Colgate.  They're both very winnable games, and they'll hope to be 2-0 going into Bethlehem off of a bye week and a tough first two games.

Lehigh will have come off opening games against Central Connecticut State, Monmouth and Princeton, and hope to have solidified all the questions going into training camp - and, hopefully, justified their ranking at No. 17 in the preseason coaches' poll.

You can bet, though, what New Hampshire and Lehigh won't want to talk at all about the Wildcats's last visit to Murray Goodman Stadium.

That's because they'd then have to talk about "the Divot".

At the CAA's media day a few weeks ago, McDonnell was recorded on CAA.TV (free video) with a pretty daunting lead-in from the interviewer.

"Sean McDonnell, the man that's been to the playoffs in nine consecutive seasons, CAA co-champions a year ago, welcome... With those nine straight playoff appearances, which is the longest active FCS streak, it's got to come with some high expectations every offseason.  The fans, and the team, must expect to make the playoffs every year."

For anyone associated with the Mountain Hawk football program, this lead-in is doubly upsetting.

Though you could technically call UNH quad-champs from last season - they finished with an 8-3 record, 6-2 in conference, along with three other CAA teams - anyone who actually followed the league last year would probably consider Old Dominion, in their final season of FCS competition, conference champs at 10-1, 7-1 in conference.

The Monarchs, however, who played a full CAA schedule, were deemed ineligible for the CAA championship and autobid to the FCS playoffs by the league, even though they, like the rest of the schools in the CAA, qualified completely for FCS competition.  They had 63 scholarships.  They lined up against the same teams.

Then there's that much-talked-about bid to the FCS playoffs, where an 8-3 Wildcat team made it into the playoffs, preserving the Wildcats' playoff qualification streak, where a 10-1 Mountain Hawk team came up empty on Selection Sunday.

Even though New Hampshire were technically quad-champs, the CAA autobid went to 8-3 Villanova.  And the Wildcats, despite losing to Towson on the final day of the season 64-35, still made the field, quite possibly as the final team.  The other two "quad-champs", Towson and Richmond, were left at home, as well as Lehigh.  (The Tigers were left at home with a 7-4 record too despite crushing the Wildcats on the road.)

It's amazing to think one preseason media day question could dredge up such feelings so instantly.

"Well... expect is a word I don't like to use," McDonnell said, uncomfortably moving around in his seat a little.  "I want them to understand how hard the team has to work for it.  The expectations are, if we do the things we're supposed to do, we're going to have an opportunity to go to the playoffs because of the league that we play in.  We're very fortunate.  We've had a lot of good coaches, a lot of good players in our program, and the expectations of hard work, the challenge of winning football games in the CAA, has given us an opportunity to be fortunate enough to make the playoffs."

One thing that is no question is that year in and year out McDonnell has assembled around him one of the finest player and coaching staffs that FCS has ever seen.

Ever heard of a guy called Chip Kelly, new Eagles head coach and former Oregon head coach?  McDonnell used to be his boss at New Hampshire, where Kelly and McDonnell devised the incredible offense that would start the Wildcats' playoff win streak.

They'd surround themselves with what could have been the greatest QB-to-WR combo in FCS history, QB Ricky Santos to WR David Ball.  Ball holds the NCAA record for touchdown passes, breaking the record of a pretty good receiver himself, Mississippi Valley State WR Jerry Rice.

Both Santos and Ball thrived in the CFL.  Santos is now an assistant coach at UNH.  Ball was recently signed by the Eagles, reuniting him with Kelly.

McDonnell knows it looks easy to have the success that the Wildcats have enjoyed.  But he also, in one statement, acknowledges how hard it is in reality, and also pays tribute to the "schedule strength" that the CAA provides.

You wouldn't expect anything different from a head coach that has been playing and winning in the CAA for the last 14 years.

And he knows very well it isn't a foregone conclusion that they'll be back for the tenth consecutive playoff appearance, because, like Lehigh, New Hampshire has a quarterback question to answer, though it's a bit different than the QB situation for the Mountain Hawks.

The Foster's Daily Democrat explains:

Sophomore QB Sean Goldrich (59 percent, 1,202 yards, 8 TDs, 5 INTs) and junior QB Andy Vailas (58.1 percent, 1,558 yards, 18 TDs, 3 INTs) shared time last year, with Goldrich playing more down the stretch. 
McDonnell said neither player has been designated the No. 1 as camp gets set to begin. 
“I wouldn’t say he has a lead, but Goldrich was the starter at the end of the season,” he said. “It was very, very close by the time the spring (practice session) ended.”

Despite the youth, the duo who started every game last season both return, and it's very likely one of the two will be starting against Lehigh at Murray Goodman with what was the 12th-best offense in all of FCS last season.

It's fair to assume that McDonnell's multi-faceted spread offense will be as dangerous as ever next season.

While the Wildcats graduate WR Joey Orlando, their top returning receiver, junior WR R.J. Harris (1,059 yards receiving, 9 TDs, Preseason 1st team all-CAA) comes back, as does three other important weapons in junior TE Harold Spears (305 yards, 4 TDs), junior RB Nico Stereti (1,030 all-purpose yards, 10 TDs), and senior RB Chris Seitan (702 all-purpose yards, 9 TDs).  

Orlando.  There's that name again.  

And the memories of the Divot game.

****

It was a thriller on a somewhat wet, overcast September day in 2011, which took three and a half hours, 89 points, and overtime to finally decide.

With New Hampshire clinging to a 24-20 halftime lead, starting the second half it looked like the wheels might come apart for the Mountain Hawks as New Hampshire would score 14 points in 36 seconds.

WR Joey Orlando would zip through Lehigh's punt coverage on a 56 yard touchdown runback, and when Lehigh QB Chris Lum would loft an interception on the next Lehigh offensive play, UNH QB Kevin Decker would find a wide-open WR R.J. Harris to help extend the Wildcat lead to 18 points.

Harris, a freshman then, is the Wildcat's leading receiver going into this season.

"When you play anybody, you don't want to do those things," Coen said after the game.  "You don't want to turn over the ball in your neck of the woods.  It gets maginfied when you play a team like New Hampshire, but I don't care who you're playing.

"But our kids responded. We got ourselves behind coming out in the second half but never once wavered. Our coaches and the players on the sidelines were into the game. They fought their tails off. We got right back in there and took the lead, and went into overtime."

Lum would take advantage of an Orlando fumbled punt and scored three straight drives, including one scoring pass to falling senior RB Keith Sherman, who - judging by the picture above - might not have even been the intended target of the pass.

Sherman, like Harris, will remember that game, scoring a key touchdown, as Harris did.

No matter how Lehigh got the touchdowns, though, they'd take them - including a go-ahead grab by WR Jake Drwal that featured him grabbing the ball out of the air from the UNH defender and use every bit of arm strength to wrestle the ball into the end zone to give Lehigh the lead.  

21 straight points later, it was 41-38 Lehigh.

And after UNH tied the game at 41 with a 35 yard FG, it would be all about overtime - and all about the divot.

From my recap of that game:

Decker took the ball first, and lofted the ball in the corner of the end zone. CB Bryan Andrews forced Orlando out of bounds, but, according to the referees, came back in bounds to catch the ball.
The letter of the rule is that, yes, if a player is forced out of bounds, he can come back in bounds to make a catch.  But the problem was that Orlando never made it all the way back in bounds. 
It was obvious from the footage from the TV broadcast and the sideline cameras - but instant replay is a tool that was not able to be used by the officials in this game. 
Three officials surrounded Orlando and raised their hands - but, apparently, missed the divot out-of-bounds where you could clearly see where Orlando's leg slid from underneath him. 
With the pressure to score a TD, Lehigh's offense would have another chance to extend the game - but were unable to do so - adding to the controversy of that final play. 
To be fair, it's impossible to know if the Wildcats wouldn't have scored on the next play anyway, and the same course of events wouldn't have happened in some form. 
But the call was clearly incorrect.

While the picture was grainy, since I did have a video captured of the play from WFMZ's writeup of the game years ago, I managed to screen capture the moment that Orlando caught the ball.
In it, you only see a hint of the infamous "divot", but you can see that his leg was clearly out of bounds when he caught the ball and he never fully came back in bounds.

Of course, Lum could have tied the game in the home half of overtime, making the "divot" case moot.  But it still was the deciding points in an overtime game, giving great momentum to the Wildcats and allowing them to win on what was an incorrect call.

That was no comfort for coach Coen though, back in 2011.

“You would have to look back pretty far into the annals to see the last time New Hampshire gave up an 18-point lead and then got taken into overtime," he said.  "We came to win the game. There are no moral victories here. I thought we had a chance to win going in. We talked last night to the kids about having confidence in everything we’re doing and believing in yourselves and they did that to the letter. We’ll learn from this and come back and be better from it next week.”

While nobody from Lehigh or New Hampshire will say it, the "Divot" game will be in everyone's minds when the New Hampshire game rolls around.  And on the Lehigh side, they'll be hoping that this time around they won't be talking about divots, losses, or moral victories.

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