UNH football still has room for improvement
UNH’s Tim Johnson, front, and Brian McNally, tackle Rhode Island’s Brandon Johnson-Farrel on Oct. 29 in Durham. The Wildcats will need to tackle well if they are to succeed at Montana State on Saturday. (MARK BOLTON / UNION LEADER)
DURHAM — Chris Chandler, New Hampshire’s longest-tenured player and a guy who is working on a master’s in business administration, has a new outlook on statistics, given the way his team’s football season has gone.
“You know what? I’m big into the numbers,” the wide receiver said with laugh. “But I guess I have to just not believe them this year.”
The thing is, this year’s version of the UNH football team has put up some whacky statistics.
Most important, the Wildcats posted an 8-3 overall record, good enough to make the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision tournament for the eighth straight year, which is the longest such streak in the nation.
UNH opens the playoffs on Saturday at Montana State, which is 9-2 and shared the Big Sky Conference championship with arch-rival Montana.
The Wildcats have again reached the postseason despite putting up some less-than-impressive results and numbers in a couple of football’s key areas: tackling and turnovers.
A team long known for its offense, UNH had been improving on defense in recent years, but this season it took a step back when it came to statistics and was last in the Colonial Athletic Association both in total defense (allowing 430 yards a game) and scoring defense (32.1 points a game).
In a similar vein, the Wildcats in the past have thrived on turnover margin — showing an ability to get the ball away from the other team more than they give it up themselves — but have had issues on that count this year, too.
“That’s probably the one thing that’s disappointed me the most about we’ve done this year: ball security,” said UNH coach Sean McDonnell. “We won’t go any further if we continue to turn the ball over.”
The Wildcats have lost the ball via turnover five times more than they have gained it.
By comparison, their turnover margin in their first seven years in the playoffs averaged just less than plus-11 per season. They were even while finishing 7-5 in 2007 and every other season were at least plus-5.
The Wildcats turned the ball over a lot early this season, things settled down some in the middle, and then they had four turnovers in each game against Towson and Maine in their last two contests.
Senior quarterback Kevin Decker threw three interceptions against Towson and three more against Maine.
“I’m trying to do too much, trying to score quick touchdowns instead of being patient,” Decker said after the playoff pairings were announced. “(The turnovers) mostly start with me, and that’s something I’ve got to work on the next two weeks.”
McDonnell said there will be a focus on putting Decker in good positions and getting him to make good decisions with the ball.
“The greatest thing about Kevin is, he’s got a short memory on a lot of this stuff,” McDonnell said.
The quarterback puts mistakes behind him, in other words, and moves on.
For the season, Decker has completed nearly 70 percent of his passes for more than 3,000 yards with 20 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.
He was named the CAA’s Offensive Player of the Year for directing an offense that averaged a league-best 443 yards a game and scored a third-best 33.5 points per outing.
Turnovers and tackling are both points of emphasis leading up to Montana State.
“We’ve been a little inconsistent on defense, but I think we’ve shown signs of being a pretty good defense when we all play together,” said junior linebacker Alan Buzbee. “We’ve got to continue to improve, and I think we’ll be all right. We need to get 11 hats to the ball like coach always says, and we need to focus on getting better at tackling. We’ve missed a lot of tackles this year.”
The defensive numbers did improve as the season went on — until a blip at Towson in a 56-42 loss — and McDonnell and Co. liked the way offense and defense came together later in the 30-27 win over Maine that guaranteed a playoff spot.
The defense also came up with four turnovers against the Black Bears: three picks (two by sophomore defensive back Chris Houston) and a fumble recovery.
The Wildcats will try to put it all together again — and hold onto the ball — on Saturday in Bozeman and see if they can win their first game for the seventh time in eight tries in the playoffs.
No matter the numbers.
“We always talk about the stat that matters most, wins and losses, and that’s the only one we care about,” said Chandler, who missed two years with knee and leg injuries and is in his sixth season. “We’ve just got to not believe in the numbers anymore and take it one game at a time and just worry about winning.”