When Wildcats visit Delaware today, the interim coach should have some fond memories.
NEWARK, Del. — Ricky Santos today will be back where his impressive University of New Hampshire football run, in some ways, began. He’ll be back at Delaware Stadium, leading the Wildcats into action against one of the country’s storied FCS programs in one its best venues.
Then the UNH quarterback, Santos is now the team’s interim head coach, filling on for Sean McDonnell, who took a leave of absence just before the season began to deal with health issues.
The Wildcats lost their first two games of the season and have roared back with four straight wins to jump into the STATS FCS rankings at No. 22 this week with their 4-2 overall record, 3-0 in the Colonial Athletic Association.
Santos came to Delaware Stadium for the first time in 2004 as a redshirt freshman quarterback. Largely through attrition — one player in front of him on the depth chart left the program and another was injured — he was the backup to veteran and touted starter Mike Granieri for the season opener against the Blue Hens, who were celebrating the 2003 FCS national championship that night before a packed house.
Late in the second quarter, Granieri went down with an injury.
Santos got the call on the sidelines.
“It was a little bit of a blur,” he recalled Wednesday during a weekly media conference. “I didn’t know I was going to play before that game. I was backing up going into it. Mike Granieri hurts his knee just before halftime and there was nobody left and they threw me in.”
His opening moments were a little rough.
“Didn’t know where my helmet was at the time,” Santos said. “It was at the training table. I put it on and scrambled to run out there. Called the play the wrong way and had to blow a timeout on my first collegiate play. Then I just remember kind of settling into it and we did a good job in the second half of winning a game late and it gave us a ton of confidence. Great memories from there.”
Great memories indeed.
Santos connected with David Ball for a 44-yard touchdown to put UNH up early in the fourth quarter and the defense held on for the win.
He passed for five touchdowns and 385 yards the next week in a stunning 35-24 upset of FBS foe Rutgers and the Wildcats were on their way.
The 2004 season started a run of 14 straight FCS tournament appearances that ended last year.
And Santos went 2-0 against the Blue Hens through the rest of his career — both times with NFL veteran Joe Flacco starting for Delaware, though Santos left the game his senior year with an injury and R.J. Toman finished off the victory. For his career, Santos completed 40 of 51 passes against Delaware for 535 yards and four TDs with no interceptions.
This time around, the ’Cats are looking to get back to the playoffs and have taken steps in that direction in the last month with the four wins.
This week they returned to the STATS FCS top 25 poll for the first time this season at No. 22.
They’ve got a long way to go, Santos and the Wildcats, stressed this week and vowed to as usual pay little attention to rankings or the buzz around the team.
“Doesn’t Matter. Get Better,” is a theme they adopted in light of the polls.
“It doesn’t really matter what the rankings are,” said senior linebacker and captain Michael Balsamo, who returned to the lineup in last week’s win over Stony Brook after missing four games to injury. “We know what we can do. We know how special this team can be. It’s early in the season. It doesn’t really matter where we’re ranked. We know that we can get better every day in practice and it started yesterday in practice.”
The defense ranks first in the Colonial Athletic Association in points allowed (16.2 per game) and has ramped things up with nine turnovers collected in the last four games after getting none in the first two.
The play of the guys up front — defensive tackles Elijah Lewis, a junior, and Niko Kvietkus, a sophomore, and defensive ends such as senior Josh Kania, junior Brian Carter and sophomore Gunner Gibson — has opened things up for the linebackers and defensive backfield, Balsamo said.
“Eli, our front four, Niko, all of our D-ends are doing a tremendous job getting to the quarterback, making him kind of uncomfortable during a game,” Balsamo said. “That gets him to scramble, make bad throws, let our defensive backs do what they do best.”
Delaware listed senior Pat Kehoe as its starter at quarterback for the game on its depth chart. Kehoe came on in relief of sophomore Nolan Henderson who left last week’s 42-7 loss to Elon early with an injury.
Kehoe passed for a couple of TDs in a 38-14 win over UNH last year in Durham. Delaware picked off three Wildcat passes that day.
On offense, true freshman Max Brosmer teamed with sophomore wide receiver Brian Espanet for a pair of touchdowns last week. Espanet has 15 catches for the season, four of them for scores.
Brosmer completed 16 passes against Stony Brook to eight receivers.
Senior Malik Love leads UNH with 21 catches, sophomore running back Carlos Washington Jr. joins Espanet with 15, redshirt freshman Charles Briscoe has 13 and true freshman Griffin Helm has 10.
“There’s not one guy that the opponent is going to key on,” Espanet said. “We have so many guys that can make plays. There’s a lot of mouths to feed. I think that’s the best part about our offense.”