New Hampshire proves its mettle with playoff upset of Central Arkansas

(STATS) – There was some surprise when New Hampshire earned an at-large bid to the FCS playoffs, but the perennial CAA Football power proved it belonged on Saturday.

The Wildcats ended No. 4 seed Central Arkansas’ 10-game winning streak to pull a 21-15 road upset in the second round.

New Hampshire (9-4), making its 14th straight playoff appearance, will visit No. 5 seed South Dakota State (10-2) in the quarterfinals next Saturday (3 p.m. ET).

“Terrific effort by my guys,” UNH coach Sean McDonnell said. “They just played their tails off. Coming into this situation, playing the No. 4 seed, No. 3 seed whatever it was in the country, a lot of people didn’t think we belonged. We told the kids let’s go play. That’s where things get done, on the field.”

Redshirt freshman quarterback Christian Lupoli, in relief of injured starter Trevor Knight, threw a 9-yard touchdown pass to Malik Love in the fourth quarter to provide a 21-9 lead. Lupoli was 8 of 10 in just over two quarters of action after entering the game with three career completions.

The Wildcats’ defense scored on Evan Horn’s 56-yard interception of UCA’s Hayden Hildebrand in the second quarter. They also stopped the Bears on their final drive when a Jae’Wuan Horton sack knocked the ball from Hildebrand and linebacker Jared Kuehl recovered it at the Wildcats’ 20 with 1:16 left to play.

UNH finished with five sacks, including Rick Holt with 2 1/2.

“I thought our guys played hard, but we didn’t play well enough to beat a really good team,” UCA coach Steve Campbell said. “I had no familiarity with that conference, but those guys are good. That’s a good football team. You got to take your hat off to them. They were really good up front (on defense). I thought their inside guys were really good, and I thought those ends were good. I was hoping that the linebackers weren’t as good as what they looked like at times on film. But they were good.”

New Hampshire backed into the playoffs with a 15-0 loss at Albany in its regular-season finale and struggled to eliminate Central Connecticut State in the first round. In the first-ever meeting with Central Arkansas (10-2), the Southland Conference champ had a 434-216 edge in yards, but the Wildcats forced four turnovers.

Knight also threw a touchdown pass to Evan Gray, who had 85 rushing yards on 24 carries, and New Hampshire overcame Hildebrand’s 74- and 78-yard touchdown passes to Cedric Battle.

“I can’t tell you how proud I am of our kids and our program,” McDonnell said. “Wherever we’ve gone, we’ve just buckled up and gone and played. Don’t talk much about it. We’ve done it. I asked the kids to do that and they did. As a coach, you can’t ask for anything more.”

UNH is 14-13 during its 14-year playoff run, including 3-3 in the second round.