DURHAM - They will have their hands full, no doubt about that, with a Montana State University team that was ranked No. 1 in the country just two weeks ago, shines on both offense and defense and feels it has something to prove.
But the Wildcats of the University of New Hampshire are right back where they believe they belong, playing football after Thanksgiving, and look to take the first step on Saturday afternoon toward a run deep into the NCAA's Football Championship Subdivision tournament.
They are in the playoffs for a best-in-the-nation eighth straight season and they have had great success in their first games in the tournament. Not so much after that.
The Wildcats, 8-3 this year, have lost only once in the first playoff game. Six times, including each of the last three seasons, they have won a tournament game and then lost in the quarterfinal round.
“We definitely don't want to get bounced like we have been in the past few years,” said senior quarterback Kevin Decker, very much a key to where the Wildcats go from here. “We want to get to where we've never been before and in order to do that, we've got to win on Saturday.”
Montana State, 9-2, lost its regular season finale, 36-10, to rival Montana and last year was stunned at home by North Dakota State , 42-17, in its first playoff game since 2006.
The winner of the UNH-Montana State game advances to the quarterfinals to play the winner of the Stony Brook at No. 1 Sam Houston State game.
Ironically, should the Wildcats keep winning in the tournament and the other favored and seeded teams win, the road to the national championship game looks like this: to Montana, to Texas, to Montana again, then Texas again.
The University of Montana is in line to host a semifinal game if it keeps winning and the national championship game is scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 7, in Frisco, Texas.
That of course, is looking way too far ahead.
First, Decker and the offense need to find a way to secure the ball better than they have in recent weeks and put up a bunch of points and the defense must deal with a Montana team that loves to run the ball, but can move it through the air as well.
Chances are, the Bobcats and their coaches love the idea of running it even more after watching UNH game film, particularly of the Towson game.
The Tigers got up on the Wildcats early and gained a whopping 334 yards rushing and rolled to a 56-42 win on Nov. 12.
Asked about Towson's success this week, sophomore Cody Kirk, one of Montana State's two top running backs, responded with a smile and this comment in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle: “We aren't supposed to talk about the gameplan.”
Thanks in part to the Towson game, the Wildcats expect to see plenty of Kirk and junior Tray Robinson, who played in eight games for Nebraska with limited carries last season before transferring to Montana State, coming at them.
“We know we played a bad football game and we've just got to move on and control what we can control in front of us now,” said senior defensive end and captain Brian McNally. “As poorly as we played against Towson, we know we can play much better.”
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THE MEN'S hockey team travels to UMass-Lowell tonight to start a key three games-in-seven nights stretch.
The Wildcats and River Hawks are back at it on Saturday night at the Whittemore Center. UNH closes out the pre-Christmas portion of its schedule with a home game against Boston University on Thursday night.
“If we want to be a team that contends in the top tier of the league, these games are very important,” said UNH coach Dick Umile. “We've got to put 60 minutes together. That's our challenge. To win on the road we've got to go down there and put it all together.”
The Wildcats are 6-1-0 at the Whittemore Center and 0-5-2 away from it and these three games are against the teams closest to them in the standings.
BU is in third place in Hockey East, two points ahead of UNH.
The Wildcats, 4-4-1 in the league, are in fourth, a point ahead of Lowell, Providence and Northeastern. UNH has played two more games than either Lowell or Providence.
Lowell's only loss in its last six games was a 5-0 decision at New Hampshire on Nov. 18.
Sophomore goalie Doug Carr shut out Massachusetts, 4-0, and Alabama-Huntsville, 3-0, in Lowell's last two games. Including a 7-1 win over BU, the River Hawks have outscored opponents 14-1 in their last three home games.
After Thursday's BU game, UNH is off until a home game against Brown on Dec. 30, which is followed by its game at Fenway Park against Maine on Jan. 7.
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THE MEN'S basketball team, 2-2 after Wednesday's 53-50 win over Dartmouth, is at Holy Cross on Saturday night at 7.
Holy Cross is 2-5 with wins over Boston College, 86-64, and Hartford, 80-66.
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THE UNH WOMEN play three home games in seven days, starting with Holy Cross, 3-4, on Saturday at 2. Harvard comes to Lundholm Gymnasium on Tuesday at 7 and Manhattan is in Friday at 7.Allen Lessels covers UNH athletics for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.