DURHAM — Here’s another way to look at what the University of New Hampshire football team’s defense pulled off in its 26-10, turnover-filled win over Elon before a huge Homecoming crowd at Wildcat Stadium on Saturday.
Elon junior quarterback Davis Cheek had thrown 240 straight passes without an interception before he had one picked off a week ago against James Madison.
On Saturday, UNH grabbed three interceptions against Cheek in the first half alone and added another in the third quarter.
Best yet for the Wildcats, they ran two of the picks back for touchdowns: true freshman linebacker Oleh Manzyk had one for 55 yards and junior safety Evan Horn the other for 55 yards.
The five takeaways powered UNH to its third straight win, pushing the Wildcats’ overall record to 3-2 and 2-0 in the Colonial Athletic Association.
“Turnovers themselves are going to help us win the game,” Horn said. “Once you get a turnover and a touchdown, the percentage of winning that game is so much higher. Things like that really spark you, and then you get two. I can’t imagine a team getting two defensive touchdowns and not winning the game. It was really big for us to get that today.”
The victory gives UNH added momentum heading into a tough stretch of road games starting next Saturday at No. 24 Stony Brook at 6 p.m.
UNH scored five defensive touchdowns last year — three in the final three games of the season — to rank among the leaders in the country in that category.
The defense did not have a turnover through the first two games of this season, came up with one in their third game and a couple in their fourth and was getting eager for more, Horn said.
The defensive line and linebackers cranked up the pressure on Cheek and his offensive line — the Wildcats had six sacks on Saturday, three by Manzyk — and went to work.
“A real tribute to it was our defensive line getting to the quarterback,” Horn said. “Six sacks. The whole time, I don’t think he ever felt comfortable tonight. That’s what we want to do to these quarterbacks.”
Getting pressure, while stopping the run, was the message defensive coordinator John Lyons stressed to his team.
“I told the guys we had to play really well up front because they had had success running the ball,” Lyons said. “They’re very patient and they hit these little creases. . . . One thing we had to do was we had to get after the quarterback. I think he’s really good. I think he’s very smart. I think he really understands their offense. And we just had to get him off his mark.”
That they did.
No play better summed up the day than Manzyk’s pick-six, set up by a charging Josh Kania, a senior defensive end who got to Cheek.
“I was in spy and I saw the quarterback slide to his left,” Manzyk said. “All I saw was Kania did a great job getting off that line. I just saw him coming like a madman. It’s a sure sack. All I saw was the ball here and green grass and I just went.
Lyons loved the way the play came together.
“The thing that was nice there, we have a check when they go empty,” Lyons said. “We just say the heck with it. You’ve got five protectors, we’re rushing six guys. . . . Somebody has a direct shot at the quarterback and it was Josh this time because the tackle turned out on one of our other guys. He just shot right up in there.”
Time is of the essence, of course.
“The ball’s coming out quick,” Lyons said. “That’s what we tell our guys. We usually say you’ve got eight yards and get your eyes on the quarterback. He’s got to catch it, turn or he’s getting smoked.”
Cheek barely got that one off. Manzyk was right there.
Playing in his fifth contest as a true freshman, Manzyk had a monster game.
“As he gets more and more confident and understands things better, he’s going to be a really good player,” Lyons said. “He’s really smart for a young kid. He can really accelerate. There were a couple of those plays that looked like he shot out of a cannon. He shot up in there. We hit him around pretty good, the quarterback.”
UNH finished with six sacks and forced the five turnovers while holding Elon’s rushing game (80 yards) in check.
The Wildcats have moved into the top spot in the CAA in scoring defense, allowing 16.6 points a game, just in front of James Madison at 16.8.