Familiar territory for UNH, Wofford in football post-season playoffs
The dreams of one will be derailed and die hard late on Saturday afternoon in Spartanburg, S.C.
The University of New Hampshire football team takes its latest shot at the Football Championship Subdivision tournament at Wofford College at 2 p.m.
"It's another opportunity to play football for us," said UNH senior offensive lineman and co-captain Chris Zarkoskie. "That's something we take very seriously. It's definitely an exciting time around here. We're one of only 16 (FCS) teams playing in December. It's a big honor."
Only eight teams will be playing on the second Saturday in December. The winner of the UNH-Wofford game will play the winner of Saturday's South Dakota State at North Dakota State game in a quarterfinal game next week. The losing team plays again late next summer.
The Wildcats, who gave up 415 yards rushing against Towson in a 64-35 loss in their last game, must find a way to slow an offense that averages 348 yards rushing a game, the second-highest total in the country.
No. 11-ranked UNH and No. 9-ranked Wofford are both 8-3 overall, and both finished 6-2 for a share of their respective conference titles in a couple of the best leagues in the country - UNH in the Colonial Athletic Association, Wofford in the Southern Conference.
They have never played each other, but both are regulars in recent FCS tournaments.
Wofford is in the playoffs for the third straight season and fifth time in the last six years. UNH is making its ninth straight appearance in the tournament, the best current streak in the nation.
Both teams want more.
"We said going into this year, 'We've been to the playoffs, we've done this process a little bit and we want to do it bigger this year,'" said Eric Breitenstein, Wofford's outstanding fullback.
Breitenstein, a 5-foot, 11-inch, 225-pound senior, averages 150 rushing yards a game as the key component of the Terriers' run-heavy, triple-option attack.
"We've struggled in the playoffs in the past," Breitenstein said. "Maybe we've won a game in the first round, but then we've dropped off. This year our class got together and said we want to go all the way. It's pretty awesome to be in the playoffs, but it would be a lot better to have a national championship. That's what we're shooting for."
Wofford advanced as far as the semifinals in 2003 but lost there to Delaware.
The Wildcats have not made it past the quarterfinals.
Both teams lost - in gut-wrenching and bitter fashion - in the second round last season after getting a bye through the first round.
UNH got a 29-yard Kevin Decker-to -Justin Mello touchdown with six seconds left to pull within a point at Montana State, but Mike MacArthur's conversion kick to send the game to overtime was partially blocked and bounced off the right goalpost and away.
"It hurts," Zarkoskie said. "It's hurt since that game."
Wofford's loss was equally painful.
The Terriers played at Northern Iowa and were tied 14-14 going into the fourth period. Northern Iowa, which has knocked UNH out of the playoffs three times in the past eight seasons, scored on the first play of the fourth quarter to take the lead.
On the ensuing kickoff, the Wofford returner caught the ball in the end zone and started walking around with it. One Northern Iowa player knocked it out of his hand and another fell on it. The returner had never put his knee down to end the play, and Northern Iowa had a touchdown and a 28-14 lead.
Breitenstein scored his third touchdown of the game late in the period, but it was not enough.
The Terriers rushed for 457 yards that day, but they also lost three fumbles, and their season ended.
The toughest part of UNH's loss to Montana State was watching careers of his teammates come to an end, Zarkoskie said.
"We don't want to go out like that as a senior class this year," he said.
To keep their season - and, for the seniors, their careers - going, the Wildcats must find a way to slow Wofford's running attack, perhaps by coming up with a couple of turnovers, and get their own balanced offense cranked up to at least keep pace with their host.
Surviving to play another week is on the line.
"We talk about it at the beginning of the season, and we have certain goals," Zarkoskie said. "Win the opener. Win on the road. Win the conference championship ..."
And win a national championship.
"It's talked about," Zarkoskie said. "We know that it's there. We know it's four games away. But without a win at Wofford we can stop talking about it, because then it's over."