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Allen Lessels' College Football: Big effort needed by UNH in Big Ten country
DURHAM -- Only three current University of New Hampshire football players made it onto the field the last time the Wildcats did a little giant-slaying.
On Saturday, Sean McDonnell’s present-day edition will try to open some eyes again and start another stepping-it-up win streak when it takes on the University of Minnesota of the Big Ten in TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
“I talked to the seniors,” said running back-turned-cornerback Dontra Peters. “This is our last one. Our last (Division) I-A opponent. We’ve got to really make our mark here.”
The Wildcats have continually made their mark in recent years. They have been to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs eight straight years, an accomplishment that no other team in the country can match.
They were working on another impressive string a few years ago. From the day that Ricky Santos made his first career start as a redshirt freshman and threw five touchdown passes in a 35-24 win over Rutgers in 2004, the Wildcats ran off five straight wins against Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly known as Division I-A) teams in a span of six years.
Five straight times they went on the road early in the season and, playing a level up, knocked off a team that had more players on scholarship than they did. Five straight times the UNH athletics department collected a check, usually in the $300,000 range, for inflicting a defeat on their hosts. Thank you very much.
After Rutgers, the Wildcats beat Northwestern (2006), Marshall (2007), Army (2008) and Ball State (2009).
Senior Chris Zarkoskie started the Ball State game at center, linebacker Matt Evans made the first of what are now 343 tackles (tied for fourth best in school history) and wide receiver Joey Orlando caught four passes for 70 yards and a touchdown. All were redshirt freshmen.
In 2010, UNH had its FBS streak snapped with a 38-16 loss at Pittsburgh and last year the Wildcats lost at Toledo, 58-22.
Saturday, they get another shot at movin’ on up in front of what Minnesota officials hope will be a crowd of more than 30,000.
“We’ve got a major, major task playing this game,” McDonnell said. “Their antennas will be up. We ain’t sneaking up on anybody.”
That’s partly because second-year Minnesota coach Jerry Kill, formerly the coach at Northern Illinois and before that Southern Illinois, a successful FCS school, will no doubt let his team know UNH’s history.
And it’s partly because of Minnesota’s own recent history.
The Golden Gophers have put up back-to-back 3-9 seasons and have no reason to look past anyone, for starters.
Not only that, but Minnesota has lost to FCS teams each of the last two seasons: to South Dakota, 41-38 in 2010, and to North Dakota State, 37-24 last year. North Dakota State went on to win the FCS championship last season, a result that didn’t make the folks in Minnesota feel any better.
McDonnell and his players don’t concern themselves with past results.
“As in anything, you want to prove you belong,” McDonnell said. “You want to play with a little chip on your shoulder. You want to show people you’re as good a football player and as good a football program and you can compete with these guys.”
Defensive end Jimmy Vailas, a junior out of Bedford and Kimball Union Academy in Meriden, said the Wildcats are ready
“It’s exciting,” he said. “When you’re young, you always dream of playing in the big-time. Big situations, big stadiums. It’s the Big Ten, one of the best in the country. We’re all pretty jacked up.”
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ST. ANSELM AND PLYMOUTH STATE both hope to be in bounce-back mode this weekend. The Hawks lost their opener at Kutztown State, 58-6, and Plymouth State fell at Castleton, 35-7.
St. Anselm is back on the road and plays at Assumption in Worcester, Mass., tonight at 7.
The Panthers play Mount Ida in their home opener on Currier Field on Saturday at 1.
Junior running back Greg Bell carried nine times for 40 yards for St. Anselm and junior linebacker Alex Bozenhard had 16 tackles.
The Hawks, who finished 1-9 last season, lost to Assumption, 24-20, at home last year.
Assumption is 1-0 after opening with a 24-20 win at Bowie State.
Plymouth State picked up 267 yards on the ground, but only 33 through the air against Castleton and the Panthers also turned the ball over five times, three by interception and two by fumble.
Mount Ida beat UMass, 24-21, on a 47-yard field goal with 1:39 left in its opener.
Plymouth State beat Mount Ida, 19-13, on the road, last year.
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DARTMOUTH, picked sixth in the Ivy League’s pre-season poll, must wait another week for its opener.
The Big Green take on Butler next Saturday night, Sept. 15, at 7 in Hanover.
Dartmouth won its final three games to finish 5-5 overall and 4-3 in the Ivy League last year.
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FRANKLIN PIERCE UNIVERSITY begins its first year of sprint football with a scrimmage at home against Cornell on Sept. 22. The Ravens have Sprint games against Pennsylvania at home on Sept. 30, at Princeton on Oct. 12, at Mansfield on Oct. 27 and home against Post on Nov. 3.
Franklin Pierce will play its home games at Oakmont Regional High School in Ashburnham, Mass., which is 20 miles from campus.
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Allen Lessels may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.