By GREG LAUDANI
As the weather starts gets chillier and we close in on another frigid New England winter, the UNH football team is on fire.
The Wildcats (6-4, 4-3 CAA) extended their season-high winning streak to three games on Saturday night after beating the University at Albany on the road, 24-14. New Hampshire’s streak has put the team in strong contention for an FCS playoff spot after starting the season just 1-3 in its first four conference games.
“I think people doubting us drives us a little bit and the whole team being as competitive as we are, we don’t want to go down without a fight,” UNH running back Dalton Crossan. “I think at halftime in that Rhode Island game is what really the turning point was for us.”
UNH plays its final regular season game on Saturday, Nov. 21 against CAA rival Maine at Cowell Stadium at 1 p.m. The Wildcats’ 4-3 CAA record is tied for third place in the conference with Towson University.
“I thought it was a great team effort on the road, where we have struggled,” UNH head coach Sean McDonnell said. “We have to figure out a way to keep it going. This is a huge game coming up against Maine and it’s huge in the sense that it’s the next one. Our kids want to build on this and it’d be great to go out of this thing with a four-game win streak at the end of it.”
The Wildcats started playing their best football of the season in the second half against Rhode Island on Halloween. After falling behind 17-0, UNH rallied and came away with a 20-17 win, which proved to be the spark that began this three-game win streak.
“We realized that wasn’t us, and we needed to stop talking about it and go out and do it,” Crossan said of the team’s comeback win against Rhode Island. “From then on we just turned it around and everyone has been playing really great. We have this last game and if we win, we have a good shot [at the playoffs]. Credit all the guys on the team and the coaching staff.”
New Hampshire’s offense put on one of its strongest performances of the season, dropping 467 yards on the Great Danes. Wildcats quarterback Sean Goldrich completed 32 of 51 passes for 301 yards and a touchdown, though he did have two interceptions that tipped off receiver’s hands.
The Wildcats sealed the game with their ability to respond when it appeared that things might have started to go in Albany’s direction.
Albany running back Elliot Croskey’s eight-yard touchdown run in the third quarter cut New Hampshire’s lead to 10-7 after the Wildcats had built a 10-0 halftime lead. Goldrich and his offense quieted the Great Danes with two consecutive touchdown drives in just over three minutes to seize control of the game.
On UNH’s next possession following the Croskey touchdown, Crossan scored on a one-yard plunge to push the lead up to 17-7. Then, after the Wildcats’ defense forced the Great Danes to punt, Goldrich and his offense had prime field position starting at the Albany 44-yard line.
The Wildcats quarterback hit tight end Jordan Powell seven plays later for a two-yard touchdown completion that gave UNH its largest lead of the day at 24-7 with 12:59 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Crossan had his way with the Great Danes, rushing for 111 yards and two touchdowns. Crossan sat out last weekend’s game against Richmond after tweaking his hamstring in the second half of UNH’s win over Rhode Island.
He came back just in time to deliver, as he’s done throughout the season as the team’s go-to running back. However, Crossan said his production should be credited to his teammates.
“All credit goes to the offensive line and the receivers blocking on the perimeter,” he said. “I also think another thing that was big was [Goldrich] being as effective as he was hitting receivers in the passing game. The run opens up the pass and the pass opens up the run so I think everyone just doing their job allowed us to play well on offense.”
Albany quarterback Neven Sussman chipped in a one-yard scoring run to pull to within 24-14 with 9:53 to play in regulation. But the Wildcat defense shut the Great Danes down after that point, holding Sussman to just 136 yards passing on the day.
The Great Danes were forced to turn to their running game as the Wildcats did not surrender much through the air.
Running back Elijah Hanks-Ibitokun led all Great Dane rushers with 86 yards on 13 carries while gaining an average of 6.6 yards per attempt. Sussman added 75 yards on the ground with 13 carries of his own.
Heading into its final regular season game next weekend, Crossan said the result is going to come down to which team plays harder for 60 minutes.
The running back admitted that the playoff picture is in the back of players’ minds, but he emphasized that, come game time, the Wildcats’ focus is going to be solely on Maine.
“We’re just going to control what we can control,” he said. “I think we have a lot of confidence going into the game, and all we’re really thinking about it beating Maine and getting that next win.”