UNH coaches enjoy Graham's success
DURHAM -- The University of New Hampshire football team, making its first appearance in the NCAA playoffs in a decade, was in all sorts of trouble.
Playing at Georgia Southern in the first round in 2004, the Wildcats trailed 14-0 before the first period reached its midway point.
"I vividly remember we were in the huddle before the next kickoff and Corey was saying, 'We've got to get it going, we've got to get it going'," said UNH coach Sean McDonnell. "He wanted so bad to do something to get the team going."
So Graham, only a sophomore, went out and did something. A Wildcat returner, he collected the Georgia Southern kick and raced 99 yards with it. Graham came up a yard short of a touchdown, but John McCoy ran the ball in on the next play and the Wildcats were going.
They rallied to beat Georgia Southern, 27-23, and advanced to the quarterfinals where they lost at Montana the next week.
Corey Graham -- one of UNH's Big Three of standouts at the time that included quarterback Ricky Santos and wide receiver David Ball - long has had a knack for making plays at key moments.
Did it back in his days patrolling the defensive backfield and playing special teams when he helped the Wildcats turn their program around with a playoff run that continues to the present day.
Did it again on Saturday when he intercepted two Peyton Manning passes - one for a touchdown early and the second to set up a game-winning field goal - to lead his Baltimore Ravens to a 38-35 overtime win over the Denver Broncos.
He'll try to be a disruptive force once again on Sunday, this time against Tom Brady and the Patriots at Gillette Stadium in the AFC Championship game, with a spot in the Super Bowl on the line.
Graham grabbed a tipped pass and returned it 39 yards for a score early in the game against the Broncos.
"It came right to me," Graham said on the Ravens' web site. "It was just one of those plays, being in the right spot."
Said McDonnell: "He looked pretty smooth going into the end zone."
The second interception led directly to Baltimore's winning field goal.
"That was a very athletic play, he's such an explosive player," said Steve Stetson, a UNH defensive assistant coach during a couple of Graham's seasons.
"The way he turned his head and got that one was the stuff we've seen him do," McDonnell said. "You're just bursting with great pride when you see that and you're happy for the kid."
Graham, who came to UNH out of Buffalo, N.Y., signed a two-year contract with the Ravens last March after five years as mostly a special teams player with the Chicago Bears. He was an All-Pro on special teams a year ago, but joined the Ravens in part because they offered more of a chance to play regularly on defense.
Injuries to Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith opened up space in the defensive backfield and Graham started eight games during the regular season.
He had a pair of picks in the regular season and matched that number against the Broncos.
Despite missing half his UNH senior season in 2006 after breaking a bone in his leg against James Madison, Graham was selected in the fifth round of the NFL draft by the Bears.
Ball catching and Graham covering were fun to watch head-to-head on the practice field, McDonnell said.
"It was unbelievable," he said. "They were the two best we ever had and they made each other better every day. And both of them didn't want to back down. They were both confident. Corey was from a small school, but he had great belief in his ability."
Belief that was well-founded.
He may have taken a bit of a backseat in headlines to Santos and Ball who were piling up yards and points as the primary beneficiaries of coordinator Chip Kelly's offensive schemes, but the coaches and teammates recognized his importance.
"We ran a lot of blitzes and were able to get a lot of turnovers with him and Etienne Bouley and John Clements covering on the corners," said Terrence Klein, then a defensive back and now a UNH assistant coach.
He remembers the highlight-film plays, too.
"There was Delaware in his senior year when he was healthy and the first half wasn't his best," Klein said. "Coach got after him and he came back with a couple of big plays in the second half."
One was a 99-yard kickoff return for a score.
"He's an unbelievable competitor," McDonnell said. "Everything we did, he wanted to win, whether it was a vertical jump, running the 40 or one-on-one basketball with David Ball. He wanted to be the guy to win. But it was always competitive, not combative."