DURHAM — The University of New Hampshire football team regrouped and rallied to earn itself one huge win last weekend.
Now the Wildcats go looking for an even tastier triumph.
Interim head coach Ricky Santos leads his group into Harrisonburg, Va., on Saturday to take on James Madison University, one of the hottest teams in the country and a team that has ascended to the No. 2 spot in the STATS FCS poll behind only powerful North Dakota State.
The Dukes are 8-1 overall and 5-0 in the Colonial Athletic Association. UNH is 5-3 overall and 4-1 in the league and moved back into the rankings at No. 23 this week after a 28-20 win at home over No. 11 Villanova.
Much is at stake come 3:30 p.m. at Bridgeforth Stadium in Harrisonburg, Va.
“With a situation like this, you’ve just got to tell them to focus on this game,” senior captain and cornerback Isiah Perkins said when asked his message to the younger players on the team. “Everyone knows what’s on the line this game. You don’t have to harp on it too much.”
With three games remaining in the regular season, the Wildcats have put themselves squarely in the hunt for a berth in the FCS tournament with five wins in their last six games.
After JMU, they play at the University at Albany on Saturday, Nov. 16 at 1 p.m. and then return home to close out the regular season against Maine on Saturday, Nov. 23 at 1 p.m. at Wildcat Stadium.
The team will celebrate Senior Day and the Battle for the Brice-Cowell Musket against Maine.
Eight teams receive seeds and byes for the first round of the tournament that starts Saturday, Nov. 30.
“For JMU, obviously, they have the eight wins,” Perkins said. “They’re looking at it like maybe we could secure our seed for sure. Us, we’re trying to get into the playoffs with three games left. You’ve just got to tell (our guys) don’t look at the websites, don’t look at anything, any of the predictions. Just worry about this game and this moment right here because really it’s in our hands to compete for it.”
The task is formidable.
James Madison leads the Colonial Athletic Association and is among national leaders in many statistical categories including scoring average (38.9 points per game), points allowed (16.1), rushing offense (238 yards per game), rushing defense (67.3 yards allowed) and both total offense (463.1 yards per game) and defense (289.9 yards allowed).
“Where do you begin?” Santos said. “They don’t really have a weakness. I think first and foremost both sides of the line are really good for them. They’re a big, physical imposing offensive line. They run the football well. Their game plan is going to be to control the clock. They’ve won the time of possession in almost every game they’ve played. We’ve got to stop the run against them first and foremost. Then their defensive line is very dynamic. Their two defensive ends are one and two in the conference in tackles for loss.”
UNH’s offensive line will need to give freshman quarterback Max Brosmer time and space to work.
The Wildcats were down 20-7 at halftime against Villanova last week and they got rolling in the second half. The defense pitched a shutout the rest of the way and Brosmer was 10-for-10 passing in the half with a pair of TD throws to redshirt freshman running back Dylan Laube out of the backfield.
For the game, Brosmer had a career high 25 completions (on 32 attempts) for a career-best 276 yards and career-best three touchdowns.
“JMU is going to play a lot of man-to-man,” Santos said. “They’re going to pressure us. Max will have to do a great job getting the ball out of his hand and understanding where the pressure’s coming from.”
Last year, the Dukes came to Durham on Nov. 3 as the No. 3 team in the country and piled up lots of yardage and played good defense.
But the UNH defense came up with six turnovers and a pair of defensive touchdowns — one a 75-yard return of an interception by Evan Horn, now a junior safety — and pulled off a 38-24 upset. It was JMU’s last regular-season loss to an FCS opponent.
Last year, the Wildcats had a 2-6 overall record and were 1-4 in the league when they took on the Dukes.
This time, they’re gunning for a CAA title and to get back into the FCS playoffs.
“In the beginning, a lot of people didn’t know what we were going to be, how we were going to be,” Perkins said. “A slow start and we slowly got our momentum back. We feel like we still haven’t had a complete game yet and we’re looking forward to going down there and trying to get that first complete game that we know we’re capable of. You saw a glimpse of it in the second half against ’Nova.”