DURHAM — The team’s defense has received much of the credit for the University of New Hampshire’s current four-game winning streak, and deservedly so. The Wildcats are ranked seventh among FCS teams in scoring defense at 16.2 points per game, but solid special teams play has contributed significantly to UNH’s success this season as well.
Those contributions were clear in last week’s 20-14 victory at Stony Brook, when Drew Sanborn averaged 46.2 yards on four punts — two of which were longer than 50 yards — and pinned the Seawolves inside the 20-yard line twice; Jason Hughes made two field goals (22 and 42 yards); and Dylan Laube had a 45-yard kickoff return.
UNH (4-2, 3-0 Colonial Athletic Association) is ranked No. 22 in the STATS FCS Top 25 and No. 23 in the FCS Coaches’ Poll entering Saturday’s game at Delaware (1 p.m.). Delaware (3-3, 1-1) is No. 24 in both polls.
Hughes, an Atkinson resident who played quarterback at Timberlane Regional High School, enters Saturday’s contest having made 11 field goals in 14 attempts this season as well as each of his 12 point-after kicks. He’s made five of six kicks from at least 40 yards.
The Wildcats haven’t made more than 11 field goals in a season since 2013, when they made 15 of 20 attempts.
“Jason’s been killing it,” said Sanborn, a senior from Amherst who’s the holder on field goal attempts. ”I don’t expect him to really slow down at all. I think myself and the punt unit — I think we’ve done a pretty good job so far. Obviously I can get a bit farther with the kicks and get a little more consistency, but I think overall special teams have been pretty good. I’d say as a whole this has been one of the better years I’ve seen for the special teams units.”
Sanborn, who played linebacker and tight end in addition to punting when he played at Bishop Guertin, is averaging 41.2 yards per punt this season. Half of his 28 punts have forced the opponent’s offense to start inside its 20-yard line, and four of those kicks have traveled at least 50 yards. He was named the CAA Special Teams Player of the Week for his performance against Stony Brook.
“Punting and kicking were two things that were really good for us (against Stony Brook) and continue to be a strength with Jason Hughes and Drew Sanborn,” UNH interim head coach Ricky Santos said. “(Safety) Joe Eichman and (safety) Matt Sherlock are guys who have done a real good job for us playing on multiple special teams and finding ways to contribute. (Linebacker) Nellie Thomas is somebody who would love that opportunity to be a starting guy, but he’s really relished that opportunity (to contribute on special teams). There’s three or four guys who are truly selfless and putting the team before themselves.”
UNH will be without Pop Lacey on Saturday. Lacey, who is fourth in the CAA in punt-return average (6.2 yards per return), suffered a broken foot in practice and missed the Stony Brook game.
He had surgery on Monday and Santos said he expects Lacey to miss at least three weeks.
“It’s a broken bone near his big toe,” Santos said. “He’s going to go back in two weeks right after the bye and we’re going to reassess that.”
Delaware has its own injury problems. Quarterback Nolan Henderson was knocked out of last week’s loss to Elon in the first quarter and is not listed on the team’s two-deep chart this week. Henderson, who began the season as the backup to Pat Kehoe, has completed 50 of 84 passes for 552 yards and seven touchdowns with no interceptions.
While Henderson is a threat to run, Kehoe is more of a pocket passer.
“It’s a very tough place to play,” Santos said. “Really, really excited for the opportunity.”