UNH opens playoffs vs. Patriot champ again, this time Lehigh
(STATS) – Familiarity surrounds Saturday's opening-round playoff game between New Hampshire and Lehigh.
Besides this being the teams' fifth meeting in seven years, UNH is beginning the playoffs at home against the Patriot League champion for the fourth consecutive season.
“I figured that's probably where we would go as that's been the pattern lately,” Lehigh coach Andy Coen said.
Also just like last year, the winner will go on to play at James Madison. That's a CAA Football rival for the 22nd-ranked Wildcats (7-4), but they know better than to look ahead.
Their streak of 13 straight playoff appearances is the longest in the FCS. They reached the national semifinals in 2013 and 2014 – those runs began with blowouts of Lafayette and Fordham, respectively – before being stunned in the opening round last year by Colgate.
“Last year, we had the same situation, a Patriot League team coming to Durham,” Wildcats leading rusher Dalton Crossan said. “I think personally that we kind of wrote them off. Not like really we thought we were going to win 100 percent, but we were kind of looking towards JMU, thinking about going to JMU. We had already beaten (Colgate) earlier in the year.
“Us seniors are going to make sure that is not the mindset.”
While UNH is the perennial powerhouse from a conference which has four teams in the postseason, Lehigh (9-2) is the lone representative from an inferior league.
That doesn't mean the little guy will be a pushover. In fact, the odds-makers made the Mountain Hawks a slight favorite.
They're actually ranked higher in the STATS FCS Top 25 at No. 18, and deservedly so after closing the regular season with nine straight victories. Whereas Lehigh wrapped up the Patriot title a few weeks ago, the Wildcats had to wait with fingers crossed on Selection Sunday – and their at-large hopes were nearly dashed a day earlier when they needed a late field goal to beat Maine.
“We've been in some type of playoff mode probably since the middle of the season on, knowing that you win this one, you lose this one, you might not be going to the dance,” New Hampshire coach Sean McDonnell said.
While McDonnell's team hasn't missed the playoffs since 2003, Lehigh is in the field for the first time since 2011.
“What scares you is you have a team with the tradition of New Hampshire, and they know what it's like to play winning football at the FCS level in the playoffs,” Coen said, “and we won't have one player that's stepped foot in the playoffs. That's a little scary for us, but I like our football team.”
There's a lot to like about the offense.
Nick Shafnisky took home Patriot offensive player of the year honors despite missing 2 1/2 games with an ankle injury. He's rushed for 10 touchdowns and thrown for 20 in just nine games, surpassing 230 yards passing in seven of them. His two favorite targets are the Patriot's two leading receivers, with Troy Pelletier and Gatlin Casey each having topped 1,000 yards while combining for 25 touchdowns.
What makes the Mountain Hawks offense even scarier is that they became more balanced as the season wore on. Sophomore Dominick Bragalone, whom McDonnell called “something special,” rushed for 570 yards over the last four games while averaging 8.4 per carry.
“Offensively, it's great to see the air show. Shaf, Gat and Troy are just killing it,” said All-Patriot placekicker Ed Mish. “And then Dom running people over and being able to get some long scores. It's been really exciting.”
Bragalone hopes to tear up the New Hampshire defense just as CAA rushing leader Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks did two weeks ago, gaining 298 yards in Albany's 36-25 upset win at Wildcat Stadium.
That game and a 42-39 loss to James Madison on Oct. 15 were the only blemishes in conference play for UNH, but they're also proof of vulnerability for a defense which has generally been the team's strength.
In fact, the most yards the Wildcats have allowed came to a Patriot team – 498 in a 39-28 win over Holy Cross on Sept. 10. On that same day, Lehigh nearly upset CAA power Villanova on the road, losing 26-21 on a late touchdown.
Furthering the idea that UNH won't take the opponent lightly is the memory of last year's shocking 27-20 playoff loss to Colgate.
“We know what (the Patriot League) can do, they beat us last year in the playoffs,” McDonnell said. “Believe me, everybody's antennas are on high here in Durham.”
The Wildcats lead the all-time series 12-3, including a 45-27 win in 2014 as they shut down an inexperienced Shafnisky.
This Lehigh team, though, is much more talented. Plus, Coen has surely mentioned to his players how the Mountain Hawks upset UNH not so long ago – 34-27 in 2013 in Durham.
“Things change over time,” Coen said, “but we have an idea of what they like to do and how they like to do it.”