UNH takes down William & Mary for only second time in 12 years

By Josh Sullivan, Sports Editor

Cameron Johnson/STAFF Wide receiver R.J.  Harris had his 16th career game with 100 receiving yards, putting him eight short of David Ball’s school record.

Cameron Johnson/STAFF
Wide receiver R.J. Harris had his 16th career game with 100 receiving yards, putting him eight short of David Ball’s school record.

When the Wildcats headed into their game with the William & Mary Tribe on Saturday, they were merely 1-10 against the team under Sean McDonnell’s tenure as head coach. That record was improved to 2-10 after a hefty 32-3 win over a team that was expected to give the Wildcats plenty of trouble before the defense shut them down.

Tribe wide receiver Tre McBride was held to only seven catches for 28 yards and quarterback Steve Cluley was sacked three times by the UNH defense, who played the best they have all year.

“We didn’t hurt ourselves,” senior captain and defensive end Cody Muller said. “We kept building momentum and our two’s and three’s [backups] came in and kept the score at three points.”

The win continues UNH’s Homecoming winning streak to six games and is the largest margin of victory over William & Mary since the last team coached by Bill Bowes won 31-19 on the road back in 1998. It also improves the UNH’s record to 5-1 and 3-0 in the CAA, moving up in the FCS rankings to No. 3 overall.

The first quarter of play began evenly for both teams, until William & Mary got the ball with under eight minutes left in the quarter. After going three-and-out, Tribe punter Hunter Windmuller had his punt blocked by Ryan Farrell, who earlier in the game had been called for an illegal block in the back.

“He was adamant he didn’t do it so I got after him about it a little bit,” McDonnell said about the penalty. “I said go block it. It was a huge play and gave us a big momentum swing.”

Immediately after the block was recovered by freshman defensive end Riley Pritchett, everything started to click for the ‘Cats. A two-minute drive comprised of Andy Vailas passes and Jimmy Owens carries, Nico Steriti punched the ball into the end zone from one yard out. After a two-point conversion to R.J. Harris to make the game 8-0, UNH never looked back.

Harris had over 100 receiving yards for the 5th time this season and 16th time in his career as he slowly creeps up on David Ball’s school record of 23. His 25-yard touchdown catch from Vailas only five seconds into the second quarter put the ‘Cats up 15-0,  but the passing game looked different than usual, due to junior wideout Jared Allison being Vailas’s No. 1 target on the evening. Allison had eight catches for 57 yards, numbers that aren’t overbearing but still significant considering the roles that Jimmy Giansante and Harold Spears have been playing in the offense. McDonnell was impressed with the way Allison ran with the ball after the catch.

“We build plays based on other teams defense,” Allison said. “I had a couple of opportunities to get open and I did.”

UNH came out strong in the second half, driving down the field to set up a Christian Breda field goal with 11:17 remaining in the third quarter. Six minutes later, the ‘Cats would score again. Vailas connected with Steriti from one yard out to put the ‘Cats on top 25-3, and the next time they scored would be via the exact same combination. After a 6:54 drive in the fourth quarter, Steriti would catch another pass from Vailas in the end zone, this one from two yards out, to provide a little cushion and a 32-3 lead that would hold until the end of the game. The defense, led by DeVaughn Chollette’s seven tackles, never let up, keeping the highly praised Tribe offense to just a field goal.

“I think we came out early and had a fast start, Muller said. “Danny Rowe made some big tackles on third down to get us off the field and I think we just fed off of that.”

Steriti’s three touchdowns is especially a bright spot for UNH, as there were concerns going into the game about his ankle that was previously injured against Lehigh and reinjured against Richmond. Between Owens’ 74 yards on 11 carries and Steriti’s versatility that was used to catch four balls for 16 yards and carry another nine for 19, McDonnell’s squad is sitting in a good position while looking forward to the return of sophomore running back Dalton Crossan.

The win was especially sweet because of the history between UNH and William & Mary.

“The last few years, they have been better than us, they physically handled us,” McDonnell said. “We’re very proud of what our guys did.”