By Josh Sullivan, Sports Editor
Since dropping its season opener to Toledo on Aug. 30, the team has won 9 straight on its way to being ranked No. 1 in the Football Championship Subdivision. Whether beating teams on the ground or through the air, the Wildcats have found a way to put up points on the board while keeping opposing offenses on the sidelines with a defense that has forced 21 turnovers.
Junior Sean Goldrich began the season as the starter, yet senior Andy Vailas saw the playing field in each of the first three games. Then, Goldrich got injured, and Vailas came in, winning all five games he started while Goldrich was recovering. Two weeks ago, Goldrich returned from his knee injury with a vengeance, earning victories in his last two starts against Rhode Island and Delaware, throwing for 615 yards and six touchdowns along the way.
The ‘Cats receiving corps has been prolific. R.J. Harris is not only the Wildcats’ best receiver this year, but also the best wide out in the FCS, averaging 115 receiving yards a game on his way to racking up 13 touchdowns on the season thus far. Last Saturday, Delaware tried to take away Harris as an option. Showing versatility, UNH adjusted its game plan by spreading the ball out to tight end Harold Spears and wide receivers Jared Allison and Jimmy Giansante. Spears reeled in three touchdown receptions in last Saturday’s 43-14 victory over Delaware.
At running back, Jimmy Owens and Nico Steriti have split carries with Owens taking the majority of carries from the midfield, and Steriti using his 5-foot-11 inch, 230 pound frame in goal line situations, and soft hands to keep the defense in check with screen passes out of the backfield. Additionally, redshirt freshman Donald Goodrich has earned some game experience, carrying the ball 35 times this season.
On defense, Shane McNeely has been dominant at the linebacker position, while mentoring sophomore linebackers Kevin McNally and DeVaughn Chollette to the point where both have become impact players.
Bottom line, the team has depth. According to head coach Sean McDonnell, the depth can be attributed to his players practicing with a mindset that they’re a starter.
“It’s a credit to kids that if you prepare as a number one, you’ll be ready to go come game time,” McDonnell said. “Some play 40 snaps, others play 15-20, but by splitting time, you’re creating depth.”
McNeely also attributes the success of the younger guys to the amount of special teams they play.
“I was once in [McNally] and [Chollette] ’s shoes, I just try and answer as many questions as they have,” McNeely said.
UNH will take on rival Maine this weekend, and the team has never looked deeper. The teams will battle for the Brice-Cowell Musket, an accolade the Wildcats have held for the last four seasons. All of the above mentioned players are healthy and ready to go, along with the return of running back Dalton Crossan.
McDonnell talked about how Crossan is in a similar situation that Owens was in two years ago: Playing behind both Steriti and then-starting running back Chris Setian, Owens was running for about seven yards a carry when he got into games, but found it tough to break the lineup because of the stellar play from the two players in front of him on the depth chart. Crossan has only seen action in two games — an 8-yard carry against Rhode Island, and a carry and reception against Delaware — but can be expected to be ready to go if needed. Steriti made it clear that, regardless of who gets the ball, winning is all that matters.
“As a senior class, our job is to win,” Steriti said. “Who ever is the best guy for the job, you just gotta roll with it.”
As UNH closes in on the CAA title, the team refuses to even glance past rival Maine, an opponent who has gotten better and better as the season has progressed.
“It’s like the Ohio State [and] Michigan game of the CAA,” McNeely said. “We’re two teams that don’t like each other.”
“It’s just one of those games where you throw records out the window, you throw the CAA championship out the window, you throw playoffs out the window,” Steriti said. “Nothing matters except winning that musket.”
The team will take on Maine for the 103rd time in the rivalry’s history Saturday at Alfond Stadium in Bangor, Maine. Kickoff is at 3:30 p.m.