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September 29. 2011 10:46PM

Allen Lessels' College Football: UNH plays home opener - finally

DURHAM -- Home again, home again. Finally.

“It feels like forever,” University of New Hampshire senior quarterback and co-captain Kevin Decker.

It just about has been.

The Wildcats play their first home game of the season — and first after five games in five states from Florida to Ohio since they beat Towson here on Nov. 20 — on Saturday against Holy Cross at Cowell Stadium at noon.

“We’re back in the Dungeon, back where we all started,” said senior defensive end James Jenkins with a smile. “It’s going to be pretty good.”

Holy Cross is 2-1 after three home games with a 24-16 loss to Massachusetts and wins over Colgate (37-7) and Harvard (30-22). UNH owns the same record, has also won two straight and is ranked No. 7 in the Sports Network/Fathead.com poll.

The Wildcats lost at Toledo, 58-22, and won at Lehigh, 48-41 in overtime, and at Richmond, 45-43.

“We’re definitely pleased, especially after we got smoked in the first game on the road,” Decker said. “To come back to win two close games in hostile environments, that’s a pretty good road trip. ... We’ve got some challenging games, but if we win the remaining games at home, we should be all right come later in the year.”

There is much work to be done, though.

One, the defense must improve.

“We’ve taken baby steps,” said coach Sean McDonnell. “I would like to see better growth on the defensive side of the ball.”

Richmond collected 475 yards of offense and that’s the lowest amount an opponent has had.

The good news is that UNH defenders Randi Vines (60 yards) and Matt Evans (31 yards) each returned an interception for a touchdown against the Spiders.

On the other side, the Wildcats need to take better care of the ball.

They have had five passes intercepted and they have lost four fumbles through three games. That puts them on a pace to have twice as many turnovers as they did last year (12 picks and eight lost fumbles in 13 games).

Decker threw all but one of the five picks.

“Four interceptions in three games,” he said. “That’s unacceptable. It’s putting our defense on the field longer than it should be.”

Decker has thrown for six touchdowns and of the team’s six rushing touchdowns, he has scored five.

Decker connected with junior Joey Orlando for 10 passes for 166 yards and two scores against Lehigh and with redshirt freshman R.J. Harris for 12 for 120 yards and two scores against Richmond.

And now he has another target. Senior Mickey Mangieri, a speedy and dangerous receiver who missed all of last season with a broken leg and the first three games of this year with concussion symptoms, is ready to play.

“It will be good if we can get all three of those guys going at the same time,” McDonnell said.

The UNH program has dedicated Saturday’s game to former Wildcats Husain and Muji Karim, brothers from Vermont who suffered severe burns as the result of an automobile crash in Boston last month.

Former teammates and other former UNH athletes are coordinating fundraising efforts for donations to the Karim Brother’s Recovery Fund. The Karims are being treated in Boston hospitals. Muji played at UNH from 2003-06. Husain, after starting his career at Holy Cross, played the 2006 and 2007 seasons in Durham.

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In game 1,133 of a history that dates back to 1881, Dartmouth plays its first night game ever when it hosts Penn on Saturday at 6 at Memorial Field in a game televised on Fox College Sports.

The Big Green, 1-1, will try to do something no Ivy team has done since late in the 2008 season: knock off the Quakers.

Penn, 0-2 with losses to Lafayette (37-12) and Villanova (30-21), has won its last 15 Ivy games and has won 12 of its last 13 against Dartmouth.

Dartmouth senior running back Nick Schwieger is 138 yards short of Al Rosier’s career rushing record of 2,252 yards set from 1989-91. Rosier carried 448 times for his yards and Schwieger is at 448 for his 2,115 yards going into the game. Rosier scored 17 career rushing touchdowns and Schwieger has 18.

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St. Anselm must slow down Merrimack’s high-powered offense in Saturday’s 1 p.m. game at home in Grappone Stadium.

The Hawks are 0-3 and Merrimack is 2-1 with wins over WPI (60-3) and Pace (63-7) and a loss to Edinboro (49-19).

Sophomore defensive back Trevor Jesse has four of St. Anselm’s eight interceptions.

Former UNH wide receiver and assistant coach John Perry is the head coach at Merrimack and former Wildcat running back Dan Curran is the offensive coordinator. Merrimack averages 521 yards of offense a game.

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Plymouth State, 2-2 overall and 0-1 in the New England Football Conference, will try to snap its two-game losing streak at Nichols on Saturday at 1.

The Panthers have scored only a touchdown in the last two weeks in losses to Bridgewater State (10-7) and UMass-Dartmouth (16-0). Plymouth State had not been shut out since Sept. 17, 2005.

Plymouth is allowing 14.8 points and 256.8 yards a game. Senior linebacker Nicolas Keene leads the Panthers with 38 tackles.

Allen Lessels covers college football for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. He may be reached at alessels@unionleader.com.


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