DURHAM – Four plays into Saturday’s game against No. 3 James Madison, University of New Hampshire junior linebacker Quinlen Dean got loose and sacked quarterback Ben DiNucci, forcing a fumble that freshman defensive tackle Niko Kvietkus recovered.
Three plays later, senior quarterback Trevor Knight found classmate Kieran Presley for a 29-yard scoring pass.
Three more plays after that junior safety Rick Ellison intercepted a DiNucci passed and raced 44 yards for another UNH touchdown.
The game was less than five minutes old and it was 14-0 Wildcats.
The turnovers just kept coming.
“What did we have, five? Six,” said defensive coordinator John Lyons. “Wow. That’s a lot. Any time you get six turnovers, man, you’re in pretty good shape.”
You certainly are.
UNH turned its six turnovers – junior safety Evan Horn matched Ellison with his own pick-six from 75 yards out in the second period – into a shocker of a 35-24 win over James Madison Saturday in Wildcat Stadium.
The Wildcats were celebrating the 125th anniversary of the first New Hampshire football game and did so in grand fashion.
UNH improved to 3-6 overall with its second consecutive win and is 2-4 in the Colonial Athletic Association.
The Wildcats are down to their final two games. They play Albany in Wildcat Stadium on Saturday for their UNH Salutes/Military Appreciation game at 1 p.m. and close out on the road at Rhode Island on Saturday, Nov. 17.
Saturday’s game was a stunner particularly in terms of how the seasons have gone for the two CAA teams that went into the season considered as contenders to make the NCAA Division I FCS playoffs - and as teams that had the potential to make deep runs once the tournament began.
James Madison won the NCAA championship two years ago and lost in the title game to North Dakota State last season.
The Dukes came into Saturday’s game with a record of 6-2 overall and 4-1 in the CAA.
The Wildcats have had a frustrating season and, out of the playoff picture themselves, talked last week about the opportunity to mess up the seasons of other teams a bit and about not wanting to go quietly into the offseason.
There was nothing quiet about Saturday’s triumph.
The defense, which has been playing better and better in recent weeks, cranked up the pressure from the get-go. The Wildcats stopped the run from the start, got ahead early and put James Madison into passing mode.
Then the Wildcats amped up the defense even more.
They had five sacks for the game and three quarterback hurries.
After Ellison’s pick, JMU coach Mike Houston took out starter DiNucci and went with Cole Johnson at quarterback.
The change did nothing to slow the turnover show.
Johnson piled up passing yardage later in the game. But he was picked off three times and also lost the ball when the Plymouth, N.H., pals - senior linebacker Jared Kuehl and senior defensive end Kyle Reisert – teamed up in the fourth quarter. Kuehl hit Johnson hard from behind and Reisert recovered the fumble that resulted.
In total, the UNH defense picked off four passes and recovered two fumbles.
It was the first time UNH collected six turnovers in a game since a 43-10 win over Central Connecticut State on Sept. 15, 2012.
It was the first time the Wildcats had that many against a CAA opponent since they had seven in a 17-10 win over Richmond on Oct. 9, 2010.
The turnovers inspired the offense.
“When the defense is playing that well, when they’re putting up points, it kind of drives you, motivates you as an offense to get going,” said Knight, who threw two touchdown passes and broke a career-best 75-yard TD run. “We had a lot of different guys make plays today on the offensive side of the ball. Sean Coyne’s little run after the catch was incredible. We asked a lot of guys to show up today and make some plays and they did.”
Coyne’s little catch and run went for a 23-yard drive to cap a drive to open the second half that coach Sean McDonnell said was key in keeping his team in control of the game.
The score put the Wildcats up 28-3.
Like the offense, the defense got contributions from everyone.
Consider this: Eight players on defense had either an interception, forced a fumble or recovered a fumble. Four players had sacks.
“I just thought it was a really good effort by a lot of different guys,” Lyons said. “They all had different roles. Some were playing on first downs, other ones on third down, a lot of different shifting parts. It was good. The kids have hung in there and they’ve kept working and I think we’re really playing with a lot more confidence right now.”
They’ll aim to keep doing that for two more games.
NEXT UP: ALBANY
Albany fell to 2-7 overall and 0-6 in the CAA with a 21-16 loss at home to No. 13 Delaware on Saturday.
The Great Danes rallied and led until Delaware scored on a 14-yard run with 18 seconds left in the game.
Freshman Jeff Undercuffler, 6-fooot-5 and 219 pounds, started his first game at quarterback on Saturday.
He completed 15 of his 28 passes for 171 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions.
Albany is 10th in the CAA in scoring at 21.9 points a game. UNH is 11th at 16.8.