DURHAM, N.H. – The No. 25 University of New Hampshire (UNH) Wildcats (3-2, 2-1) were about two plays shy of upsetting the No. 3 James Madison (JMU) Dukes (4-0, 2-0). The Wildcats were able to keep JMU’s rushing attack from cutting loose like they emphasized during the week. However, the Dukes did what all good football teams do in the 23-21 victory – take what the defense gives you. It was death by a thousand paper cuts for UNH on Homecoming Weekend as James Madison dominated time of possession.
The Dukes accumulated 159 yards on the ground as a unit on 44 attempts. Contrary to how the box score may read, UNH did not allow the JMU rushing attack to beat them. It’s worth noting that the road team ran 42 more offensive snaps than the Wildcats had, so the imbalance in possession led to the big-time cumulative numbers for JMU on the ground. When challenged up front, senior Elijah Lewis and company plugged the gaps well for UNH much of the afternoon.
It was the James Madison passing attack that methodically wore down the UNH secondary. JMU’s redshirt senior quarterback Cole Johnson was 33-for-44 passing for 273 yards and three touchdowns on the day. He slowly but surely picked apart an already-thin Wildcat defense. The visitors had four drives that consisted of at least 12 plays and 75 yards, each of them ending in a score. The Dukes held possession for more than 60% of the game.
New Hampshire’s defense told as much of the story on Saturday as JMU’s offense, however. While the Wildcats’ offense was only able to score once, the defenders had two home run plays that kept the game interesting until the final minute.
First-year safety Noah Palm had a scoop and score fumble recovery from 93 yards away late in the second quarter. The Dukes were threatening to go ahead by three scores at the time and the forced fumble by redshirt first-year safety Noah Stansbury kept life inside Wildcat Stadium before halftime.
The second big play by the UNH defense came less than two minutes out of halftime. Sophomore cornerback Randall Harris jumped a route on the Dukes’ 18-yard line and ran it back for the touchdown. This brought UNH back within three points once again.
The two sides also combined for 15 penalties for 140 yards in what wasn’t the prettiest game of football played this season.
James Madison head coach Curt Cignetti was blunt about his assessment of his team after the game.
“We did everything possible to try and lose the game and somehow managed to win it,” said Cignetti.
UNH head coach Sean McDonnell was asked about his team’s resiliency before sophomore Bret Edwards threw the game-sealing interception with less than two minutes to go. McDonnell simply said that he expects his team to battle back like they did on Saturday. However, he is not taking any moral victories after the near-upset.
“I’m proud of the way the kids played, but we got to be better,” said McDonnell. “That’s not what we want to be, proud to be finishing in second.”
Junior wide receiver Brian Espanet had similar feelings after the loss. Espanet was the intended target on the final interception that would have likely put New Hampshire in field goal range to win the game. He explained that it was a tough way for the game to end, but the Wildcats will not be complacent during their upcoming bye week.
“We have to get better. 3-2 is not enough,” said Espanet. “We played hard, we kept it close, but I think going into this week we’re going to get better. We’re not going to take a vacation.”
After two straight losses, the toughest part of the Wildcats’ schedule is over, and they will prepare for Dartmouth (3-0, 1-0) in two weeks. New Hampshire has been banged up defensively, most notably missing senior safety Pop Bush and sophomore linebacker Oleh Manzyk. The extra week will give time for New Hampshire to clean up mistakes and get healthy before they welcome the Big Green into Wildcat Stadium on Saturday Oct. 16 at 1 p.m.
Photo courtesy of Dave O’Brien