Football — UNH comes from behind to capture sixth straight

Bret Belden

By Josh Sullivan, Sports Editor

CAMERON JOHNSON/STAFF R.J. Harris recorded his 17th 100-yard receiving game of his career, with 115 yards and a touchdown.
R.J. Harris recorded his 17th 100-yard receiving game of his career, with 115 yards and a touchdown.

They had to fight for every point, but thanks to some smash-mouth football and the help of a little trickery, UNH managed to hold off Stony Brook on Saturday evening to take the game 28-20. With the win, the Wildcats improve to 6-1 on the season and remain undefeated in the CAA.

UNH found themselves in unfamiliar territory early on, after giving up touchdowns in Stony Brook’s first two drives of the game to go down 14-0 early. The slow start can partially be blamed on a bye week the team had the week before and partially on a less-than-satisfactory week of practice that was noted by both head coach Sean McDonnell and his players alike.

“Unfortunately, we’re kind of known for struggling off a bye week,” quarterback Andy Vailas said. “We didn’t practice as well as we should have.”

The scoring kicked off on the Seawolves first drive, when quarterback Conor Bednarski and the rest of the Stony Brook offense went against the scouting report and spread the ball out to its receivers. After connecting with wide receiver Donavin Washington three times for 32 yards and handing the ball off to back Marcus Coker for another 25, Bednarski found tight end Will Tye in the end zone for an 11-yard touchdown pass that capped off a 5:13 drive.

After the ‘Cats were forced to go three-and-out, Bednarski got the ball again, and this time used running back Stacey Bedell to march the ball down the field and into the end zone, making it 14-0 Stony Brook and demanding change from the UNH defense.

“Defensively, after the first two series, I was very proud of the way our kids came together and started playing,” McDonnell said. “I didn’t say much to them — I usually do — but I just let them go and from the middle of the first quarter on I thought they played extremely well.”

UNH finally got on the scoreboard at the 10:58 mark in the second quarter. Vailas used his favorite receiver R.J. Harris and tight end Harold Spears to move the ball downfield. From 18 yards out, Vailas spotted a gap in the defense, tucked the ball to his chest and bolted for the goal line, stepping around four would-be tacklers en route to the end zone and cutting the score in half. The touchdown put life back into a team that needed a spark after being down early on.

Six minutes later, Vailas would do the exact same thing, this time from 14 yards out, to make the score 14-13 and, potentially, a tie game pending the PAT. Instead of playing it safe, Vailas stood up to take the snap and pitched the ball to kicker Christian Breda, who put his head down and ran the ball in for the two-point conversion. The Wildcats led 15-14 at the half.

Going into the game against the best defense in the FCS, the Wildcats knew what they would be up against, and knew that in order to put points on the scoreboard, their offense would have to keep plugging away. Running backs Nico Steriti and Jimmy Owens continuously pounded the ball on the ground, and though it took a while, the backs broke through on a couple huge gains to swing momentum in New Hampshire’s favor and put their team in good field position.

“We kept grinding. The guys up front kept going and the last big run we got was because of the first all out blitz they had all day,” McDonnell said. “Jimmy hit it hard because there was no one up the middle.”

The ‘Cats next score, and possibly the most exciting play of the game, came when Andy Vailas threw a screen pass to Steriti, who then turned around and threw a pass downfield to a wide-open Harris. Harris took the ball home for a 73-yard touchdown and Steriti’s second touchdown pass of his career.

“Against a great defense you’ve got to do some things to put some points on the board,” McDonnell said. “That’s why we went for two early on.”

With 3:22 left in the game, the Wildcats got a scare when Bednarski completed a 31-yard touchdown pass to Adrian Coxson, threatening UNH’s lead before Cam Shorey stuck his hand out and blocked the ensuing PAT attempt, maintaining the ‘Cats one point lead.

Next drive, after Casey DeAndrade put the offense in good field position as he had been doing all day. Jimmy Owens broke loose for a 51-yard touchdown run, sealing the win for UNH. The win not only proved UNH’s effectiveness against the league’s best defense, but showed a team that refused to quit after getting down early on.

“We kind of looked at each other and said look we got to do this,” DeAndrade said. “It’s hard to tell people how good teams are in this league until you see what they can do it person. That team is very good at what it does.”