DURHAM — The University of New Hampshire football team has November right where it wants it.
The Wildcats have always preached this is championship month. They come off a bye week and head back to action Saturday at Wildcat Stadium at 1 p.m. against No. 11 Villanova, primed to play for titles in a four-game gauntlet to the end of the regular season.
“That’s always our goal in the first half, three-quarters of the season, to put ourselves in position to compete for a league championship this time of year and that’s exactly what we’ve done,” interim head coach Ricky Santos said. “We know that every single week is going to be a really, really big test and it’s no different this week. Villanova is a very good football team that’s capable of beating anybody in the country.”
The Wildcats have a challenging road ahead.
After Villanova, they play at No. 2 James Madison on Saturday, Nov. 9, and at UAlbany on Saturday, Nov. 16, before closing out the regular season at home against Maine on Saturday, Nov. 23, at 1 p.m. in the battle for the Brice-Cowell Musket.
UNH is 4-3 overall and 3-1 in the Colonial Athletic Association.
By winning out, the Wildcats assure themselves a spot back in the 24-team FCS Division I tournament. If they win three of the last four, they’ll be in a good spot to claim an at-large berth in the tournament. UNH had its 14-year streak of making the playoffs snapped last season.
Villanova and James Madison are looking to earn top-eight seeds in the FCS tournament. Albany and Maine are gunning for playoff berths as well. In fact, with a month to go in the regular season, 10 of the 12 CAA teams figure they can make the tournament with a strong finish.
Between them, UNH’s final four opponents have a combined record of 22-11.
The only target that matters for the moment is Villanova, which also uses Wildcats as its mascot.
Villanova won its first six games and was ranked as high as No. 5 in the country before losing its last two games. The Pennsylvania Wildcats fell at James Madison, 38-24, on Oct. 12 and then gave up a big lead late and lost to Stony Brook, 36-35, at home last weekend.
The visitors have the second-best rush defense in the league, allowing 106.8 yards a game.
“They’re big, they’re physical, they have really good linemen up front,” UNH senior running back Evan Gray said. “Their linebackers play really smart, downhill and physical.”
UNH averages 159.7 rushing yards a game, which is fourth best in the league. But the numbers have dipped a bit in the last three games. In the team’s last outing, a 16-10 loss at No. 24 Delaware on Oct. 19, the Wildcats finished with 91 rushing yards, the first time they had finished with fewer than 100 in a game this year.
Senior lineman Matt Matulis has not played yet this season because of injury and Nick Velte, also a senior lineman, has been out since the first game. Both are ready to go and could be in the rotation Saturday, Santos said.
Villanova, averaging 37 points per game, is second only to James Madison (38.9) in scoring in the CAA. Villanova averages a third-best 449.6 yards of offense per game, 203 on the ground and 246 passing.
Junior quarterback Daniel Smith has thrown 21 touchdown passes and been intercepted seven times. Villanova has allowed only eight sacks, which is best in the league. Smith has run for six touchdowns and last week was on the receiving end of a 68-yard touchdown option pass from wide receiver Jaaron Hayek.
“The quarterback’s a very good player and he makes plays,” sophomore defensive tackle Niko Kvietkus said. “He gets rid of the ball really quick. Up front we’ve got to get to him, get him off his spot. JMU did a pretty good job with that.”
Bottom line, it’s November. It’s championship month.
“There can be few mistakes,” Gray said of the lessons he has learned about November. “The games are all important. Mistakes are critical. You can’t afford any kind of a lapse during a game.”