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College Football: Wildcats' defense can't rest

By ROGER BROWN
New Hampshire Union Leader

December 08. 2017 12:48AM
UNH's Quilen Dean practices at UNH in Durham on Wednesday. (THOMAS ROY/UNION LEADER)



DURHAM — South Dakota State is an 18-point favorite over the University of New Hampshire in the FCS quarterfinals, but one thing UNH fans can feel good about entering Saturday’s matchup (3 p.m.) is the way the Wildcats have been performing on defense.

In its two playoff games, UNH has allowed 15 points, recorded eight sacks and has five interceptions and three fumble recoveries. The UNH defense hasn’t allowed more than 17 points in any of its last seven games (James Madison returned an interception for a touchdown in a 21-0 win on Oct. 28).

The Wildcats recorded five sacks and returned an interception for a touchdown in Saturday’s 21-15 upset of Central Arkansas, which had allowed a total of six sacks in its first 11 games. UNH enters Saturday’s game allowing an average of 18.8 points per game.

“We’ve played really well defensively since the Stony Brook game,” said UNH defensive tackle Rick Holt, of Portsmouth. “If we continue to do that, we’re going to be in every game that we play in.

“We’re one win away from going to the semifinals. I don’t think a lot of people would have believed (that) going into the playoffs.”

UNH (9-4) figures to have its hands full with the South Dakota State (10-2) offense. The Jackrabbits rank sixth in the country in points per game (37.4) and scored on each of their five first-half possessions in last weekend’s 37-22 victory over Northern Iowa. South Dakota State has averaged 42 points per game during its current six-game winning streak.

When South Dakota State has the ball, the players to keep an eye on are junior quarterback Taryn Christion, senior wide receiver Chris Wieneke and senior tight end Dallas Goedert. Christion broke the program’s record for TD passes in a season (31) and career TD passes (68) in the victory over Northern Iowa. He has rushed for a TD and passed for a TD in six of South Dakota State’s 12 games, and is second on the team in rushing attempts (90), rushing yards (467) and rushing touchdowns (eight).

Wieneke is fifth nationally in touchdown receptions with 13, and Goedert, one of the top tight end prospects for the 2018 NFL draft, has a team-high 66 receptions and leads all Division I tight ends (FBS or FCS) in receiving yards (1,049).

“The quarterback is a tremendous player,” UNH coach Sean McDonnell said. “He’s 6-2, 220. He can run it, and I’m not talking about scrambling. I’m talking about the power run game. He’s a kid who can make plays with his feet and run through and over people. Then, have the ability to have some touch on the ball and put it in places.

“First thing is you have to contain the quarterback. You have to take care of him. Gotta stop the run. That just leads to everything else in your defense — what you do. So if you can stop the run, contain the quarterback and then find a way to create some turnovers and put some pressure on them in other down situations, you got a shot. You don’t have a shot if you don’t stop the run and contain the quarterback.”

Holt, a senior, is coming off perhaps the best game of his college career. He had a team-high nine tackles, including 2.5 sacks, against Central Arkansas.

“I haven’t had a game like that since I was at Portsmouth High School,” Holt said.

The UNH/South Dakota State winner will face either James Madison or Weber State in the national semifinals. James Madison and Weber State will meet tonight (7) in a game that can be seen on ESPN2.

“We are playing really confident right now,” Holt said. “We know we’ll have to bring a really good effort this week again.”

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UNH has won the turnover battle in four of its last five games. The Wildcats have turned the ball over five times in their last five games, including once in each of their playoff games. South Dakota State is plus-four in turnover margin (20-16). …

UNH wide receiver Neil O’Connor has 93 receptions for 1,358 yards and 10 touchdowns this season, but has been limited to six receptions for 67 yards in the playoffs. ...South Dakota State, which moved from Division II to Division I in 2004, has a 6-1 record at home this season. The Jackrabbits are in the FCS playoffs for the sixth straight year. … South Dakota State has blocked five kicks this season. … UNH has a 2-6 record in the FCS quarterfinals, but has won its last two quarterfinal-round games. The Wildcats beat Southeastern Louisiana in 2013 and Chattanooga in 2014.

rbrown@unionleader.com


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