DURHAM - The University of New Hampshire football team, ranked No. 21 in the FCS, has already reached one goal this season.
The Wildcats are playing games in November that matter, really matter – games that make a difference not only when it comes to championships, but when it comes to qualifying for the NCAA Division I FCS tournament.
The stakes get steeper on Saturday when UNH plays No. 22 Rhode Island at Wildcat Stadium for Senior Day. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m.
“There are a lot of teams in the country that wish they had a meaningful game with two weeks left in the season,” said first-year coach Rick Santos. “We’re fortunate enough to have that. So let’s take advantage of the opportunity.”
To keep alive their shot at a Colonial Athletic Association title and a berth in the 2022 playoffs, the Wildcats pretty much need to sweep their last two games of the season, Saturday and at Maine next weekend.
If they can win out, the Wildcats would have a shot at hosting a first-round home game in the FCS playoffs.
They can’t count on that when it comes to honoring the team’s seniors, Santos said.
“We’ve got to do everything we can to see these guys off the right way,” Santos said. “Obviously, in a perfect world, it’s not the last game the seniors have at home. But we have to think about it like it is and embrace that moment for these guys. They’ve put in a lot of work and there’s been a lot of things they’ve been through over the last five, six years to get our program back to where we’re playing meaningful games in November.”
UNH and Rhode are in the same boat. Both teams are 6-3 overall. The Wildcats and other teams have made the playoffs in the past with four wins, but things get dicey at that point and the decision lands things squarely in the hands of a selection committee.
The Wildcats are still in the thick of the CAA championship race. They share the conference lead at 5-1 with William & Mary and Richmond. Rhode Island is a step back with Elon and Delaware with two league losses each.
UNH started slowly in its first November challenge, last Saturday at Richmond – and paid for it with a loss.
The Wildcats were in a 24-0 hole and had done very little offensively when sophomore quarterback Max Brosmer connected with grad student receiver Heron Maurisseau on the last play of the first half. Maurisseau caught the ball in stride and won a battle for it while rolling with his defender in the end zone.
“Max threw such a beautiful ball,” Maurisseau said. “Initially, we both had hands on the ball. Coming down, I knew if we both go down with the ball 50-50, the receiver gets it.”
Maurisseau got it and the spark led to a fierce second half rally.
The Wildcats came up just short and lost, 40-34.
Brosmer tossed two more touchdown passes in the second half, one to redshirt freshman Joey Corcoran and the other to Maurisseau. Junior running back Dylan Laube scored a pair of touchdowns – one on a 100-yard kickoff return that gave him a share of the school record with three other players and the other on a 4-yard run.
Maurisseau’s second half TD reception was a 1-yarder, his team-leading fifth of the season and first of fewer than 25 yards. Besides the 46-yarder in the first half he has them of 49, 51 and 25 yards during the season.
Santos and the Wildcats aim to pick up where they left off in the second half last week.
UNH followed each of its first two losses of the season with a win and is looking to bounce back again.
Rhode Island is hungry, too.
Last year, the Rans knocked off UNH 28-3 on the next to last weekend of the season to move to 7-3. They were eyeing the playoffs for the first time since 1985, but dropped their finale at Elon and were left home at 7-4.
“They’ve been in this situation the last couple of years,” Santos said. “Listening to coach (Jim) Fleming on the media calls, they started their quest to being a playoff team last November when they lost their last game.”
The Wildcats will need to contend again with Kasim Hill, who had four touchdown passes against them last season, two to Jaylen Smith, including an 81-yarder on the third play of the game.
Sophomore defensive end Josiah Silver was one of the bright spots for the Wildcats last year. He sacked Hill four times, causing a pair of fumbles.
“They’re certainly going to have a gameplan for Josiah,” Santos said. “I’m sure they’re going to dictate and slide the protection to him all day.”
Silver has seen special treatment during the season. He and fellow sophomore defensive end Dylan Ruiz are the top sack combination in FCS with 17.5 between them. Ruiz has 9 and Silver 8.5.
Defensive tackles Niko Kvietkus, a senior and captain, and sophomore Nathan Kapongo each have a couple of sacks.
“With the emergence of Dylan, and Niko and Big Nate on the inside, we have so many weapons on our D-line where you can’t send all the attention one way,” Silver said. “You have to respect all four of us.”
cckles for loss.
This article originally appeared on Portsmouth Herald: UNH football to host rival Rhode Island in crucial CAA game Saturday