By Nick Stoico, Executive Editor
Here at UNH, we take football for granted.
While some students save every men’s ice hockey ticket they have, many others may not even know what league the UNH football team is in (let alone know what the FCS is).
But on Saturday night, the Wildcats introduced a new fan experience; something that will likely fill the student section a little more consistently moving forward.
And yes, the lights had everything to do with it.
Aside from the anticipated beatdown the Wildcats placed upon the Dartmouth Big Green, 52-19, there was newfound energy floating around the seats and bleachers at Cowell Stadium.
“It was great,” said running back Jimmy Owens, who racked up 81 yards on the ground with two touchdowns. “First game under the lights, everyone was pumped, the crowd was going wild, the Cat Pack was packed once again. It felt good. We were ready going into this game and let everybody know we own the 603.”
UNH holds the longest streak in the nation in playoff appearances with 10. That’s right — the last time UNH missed the playoffs, most of these seniors were still in middle school. And yet despite this success, the student section would often go empty on gameday in Durham.
Towards the end of 2013 season, as the Wildcats were working their way towards a share of the CAA championship and a bid in the postseason tournament, students started to filter in. Playing host to Maine helped drum up some excitement, but now we are seeing this newfound interest in UNH football carry over into 2014. The student section was packed two weeks ago against Lehigh. It was nearly full again on Saturday when Ivy Leaguers came to town.
Nothing has changed with the kind of football UNH is playing. Sean McDonnell and company have kept the ‘Cats in playoffs and the Top-25 for a long time now, and they don’t show signs of retreating this season. Not to mention, the Wildcats have an outstanding 39-4 record at home since 2007. When fans come to Cowell Stadium, they are likely to see a win for UNH or at least a close game.
All it took was six sets of lights to usher UNH football back into relevancy among the UNH student body. People are talking about football again like they did back when Ricky Santos was slinging passes to David Ball.
But why did it take this long to get students back to games? UNH has been in the national conversation for years, and yet when the Wildcats move up in the FCS ranks, you only could hear whispers of it around campus or see an update appear in these pages.
The evening kickoffs will help attendance, but there is more to a night game than just extra time for student fans to sleep in. Sure, the football purists didn’t miss a noon start for the last several seasons, but this kind of football needs to be played in primetime.
It’s true: Playing under the lights brings a certain bit of magic to the field and it is something the fans experience as well as the players.
Think it doesn’t make a difference? Just ask Jimmy Owens.