Wildcat gameday: No. 21 UNH vs. No. 5 James Madison University

Bret Belden

Saturday at 2 p.m.

Bridgeforth Stadium in Harrisonburg, Va.

UNH is 8-4, (6-2) in CAA;  JMU is 10-1, (8-0) in CAA

Keys to the game

Red zone offense

CHINA WONG/ STAFF Neil O’Connor had 171 receiving yards last week vs. Lehigh.
Neil O’Connor had 171 receiving yards last week vs. Lehigh.

Head coach Sean McDonnell doesn’t want his team settling for field goals and it shows as the ‘Cats have the second-most fourth down attempts in the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) with 28. The Wildcats kicked two field goals when they had the ball inside JMU’s red zone in their 42-39 loss on Oct. 15. With the combination of the field goals and two failed fourth down attempts inside JMU’s 45-yard line, UNH passed up multiple opportunities to put points on the scoreboard.

“We moved the ball the whole game against them,” McDonnell said. “What we didn’t do is put points on the board in the red zone. We kicked threes instead of getting sevens.”

Third down defense

CHINA WONG/ STAFF The Wildcats have held opponents to a 36.4 percent third down conversion rate in 2016.
The Wildcats have held opponents to a 36.4 percent third down conversion rate in 2016.

James Madison leads the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) in third down conversion percentage, converting 54.7 percent of its attempts.

The Dukes were around their average in their first meeting with the WIldcats as they went 7-13 on third downs. According to McDonnell, a major reason the Dukes are so hard to stop on third down is because of the various weapons junior quarterback Bryan Schor has around him.

“If they’ve done anything they’ve gotten better,” McDonnell said. “Their receivers are all getting the ball on third down. [Even] their backs are getting passes on third down. They distribute the football to everybody.”

UNH has allowed their opponents to convert 36.4 percent of their third down attempts so far this season. The ‘Cats had their worst performance on third downs in their loss to JMU. Both the pass defense and run defense will be vital in forcing the Dukes to punt often.

With Schor’s dual-threat ability, his array of receivers to throw to and two dangerous running backs in Khalid Abdullah and Cardon Johnson, the Wildcats will have their hands full on every down.

Four Quarters

UNH rushing attack

Dalton Crossan has been a man on a mission the last two weeks for the Wildcats. The senior running back ran for 163 yards and a touchdown against Maine on Nov. 19 and 184 yards and two touchdowns in last week’s 64-21 first-round win over Lehigh on Nov. 26. In the first meeting with JMU Crossan was held to a season-low 35-yards rushing by the Dukes but recorded two touchdowns, one rushing and one receiving. If Trevor Knight is healthy enough to play he’ll be a big addition to the running game as well.

UNH passing offense

Neil O’Connor recorded a season-high 10 receptions and 192 receiving yards in UNH’s 42-39 loss to JMU earlier this season. The sophomore receiver is also coming off an extremely productive outing in which he ripped through the Lehigh defense for seven catches, 172 yards and a touchdown. Whether it is senior Adam Riese or the sophomore Knight getting the start at quarterback, O’Connor is expected to be highly targeted on Saturday. 

JMU rushing attack

JMU has multiple weapons in the backfield, led by their senior running back Khalid Abdullah and junior Cardon Johnson. Running behind their veteran offensive line that features two juniors and three seniors, the backs were able to combine for 2,004 rushing yards on the season. The duo was held to under 100-yards rushing by the Wildcats this season but the focus on the running backs allowed Schor to rush for 70 yards and a touchdown in the win.

JMU passing offense

Schor was voted the CAA Offensive Player of the Year after throwing for 2,026 yards and 18 touchdowns. The junior quarterback has an array of weapons to help him out with his two running backs and wide receivers Brandon Ravenel, Terrence Alls and Domo Taylor. Alls and Ravenel both hauled in two touchdowns from Schor in their first meeting with the Wildcats. Tight end Jonathan Kloosterman will also be an available target for Schor as he had to sit out the first meeting with an injury.

Impact Player: Rick Holtholt_rick_72_dsc_3025

The Wildcats’ success against the James Madison rushing attack in their previous meeting was in large part due to the play of junior defensive tackle Rick Holt. Holt had four tackles, one tackle for a loss and a forced fumble that was recovered by freshman free safety Pop Lacey. Holt, a Portsmouth, New Hampshire native, has quietly played a large role in UNH’s vastly-improved run defense in 2016. 

The Wildcats allowed the most rushing yards per game, 199.3, in the CAA last season and rank third in the conference this season allowing 135.9 rushing yards per game. Holt earned a half-scholarship as a freshman and has earned himself a full scholarship starting next semester according to McDonnell.

“The thing that really makes [Holt] go is that he’s a very smart kid,” McDonnell said. “He wants answers, he wants to know what’s going on.”