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FCS Playoffs: Bad start set tone for UNH

New Hampshire Union Leader

December 10. 2017 2:42AM
New Hampshire defenders gaze through their breath for signals from the sideline during the second quarter of the Wildcats' 56-14 loss to South Dakota State in the quarterfinals of the FCS Playoffs Saturday afternoon at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium in Brookings, S.D. (Jason Salzman/Salzman Studios)

If University of New Hampshire coach Sean McDonnell had a nightmare Friday night, it may have resembled Saturday's first quarter.

UNH buried itself under an avalanche of South Dakota State touchdowns in the game's opening 15 minutes, and that sucked all of the drama out of the FCS quarterfinal-round matchup. The Jackrabbits scored on each of their first three possessions to take a 21-point lead entering the second quarter and earned a spot opposite James Madison in the FCS semifinals by breezing to a 56-14 victory at SDSU's Dykhouse Stadium.

SDSU (11-2) averaged 9.7 yards per play in the quarter, when it converted on each of its four third-down opportunities. The Jackrabbits had an 11-2 edge in first downs and a 223-49 advantage in total yards through the first 15 minutes.

UNH (9-5) entered the contest not having allowed a red zone touchdown in any of its last four games, but surrendered two in the first quarter.

Perhaps the only thing that didn't go SDSU's way in the opening quarter was an injury to tight end Dallas Goedert, who could be the first tight end selected in the 2018 NFL Draft. Goedert suffered an injury to his right leg while he made a catch on the game's first play and didn't return.

The Jackrabbits didn't seem to miss Goedert as they marched 70 yards in six plays on their opening drive. Quarterback Taryn Christion scored the game's first touchdown on a 13-yard run. The other SDSU touchdowns in the quarter came on a 48-yard run by wide receiver Jake Wieneke and a 13-yard burst by running back Isaac Wallace. UNH, which allowed 15 points in its first two playoff games, was in a 21-0 hole. The Wildcats surrendered 29 points in the first quarter during their first 13 games.

SDSU also scored on its fifth possession and led 28-0 at halftime. Any chance of a UNH comeback seemed to end when the Wildcats failed to score on a fourth-down run from the SDSU 1-yard line late in the first half.

UNH scored in the third quarter on a 75-yard pass from quarterback Trevor Knight to Kieran Presley, but SDSU found the end zone twice in the quarter and led 42-7 heading to the fourth. The Jackrabbits have outscored their opponents 66-21 in the third quarter during their current seven-game winning streak.

Neil O'Connor, UNH's top receiver, drew extra attention from the SDSU defense. O'Connor, who was limited to six receptions for 67 yards in UNH's first two playoff games, had four catches for 38 yards in the loss. That created some opportunities for Presley, who caught seven passes for 133 yards.

Wieneke caught nine passes for 140 yards and also had a receiving touchdown. His 32-yard TD catch was the 58th of his career. Wieneke and former UNH receiver David Ball are tied for second place among FCS players for career TD receptions.

UNH opponents turned the ball over eight times in the team's first two playoff games this year, but SDSU didn't give the ball away Saturday. The Jackrabbits came up with two interceptions, which means UNH finished the season with an 0-5 record in games when it lost the turnover battle.

The Wildcats have a 14-14 postseason record during their 14-year playoff streak, but are 1-6 against teams from the Missouri Valley Football Conference. Two of the four remaining teams in the playoffs are from the MVFC: SDSU and North Dakota State.

SDSU averaged 7.0 yards per play during its victory, and rushed for 265 yards - 91 more than it averaged in its first 12 games this season.

The Jackrabbits picked up 150 of those rushing yards in the opening quarter, which is when there were plenty of signs that this wasn't going to be the Wildcats' best day.

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