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It’s How You Finish: UNH On Roll as Tourney Begins

Durham, n.h. — For the first month of the season, the University of New Hampshire football team couldn’t figure out how to close games. But the Wildcats found their finishing touch in the middle of October, and now they’re preparing to finish November with something no one has seen in Durham since 2005 — a home playoff game.

“The season didn’t start off the way we wanted it to, but the way we came together as a group, I couldn’t be more proud of this team and what we’ve accomplished,” senior captain and running back Chris Setian said. “Now we’re in the playoffs and I think we’re playing some of our best football right now.”

The No. 15/15 Wildcats (7-4) will host Patriot League champion Lafayette (5-6) in the first round of the FCS playoffs today at noon in Cowell Stadium. If the FCS were still using the 16-team postseason format, as it did from 1986-2009, the Cats may not have received an invite. If the FCS was using the 20-team format, as it did from 2010-12, UNH might not have been hosting. With the new 24-team bracket, however, UNH is in the playoffs for a national-best 10th straight year and at home. But neither of those things seemed very likely after the team started 1-3.

The Wildcats coughed up a 14-point, fourth-quarter lead in the Sept. 7 season opener at Central Michigan and lost on a last-second field goal, 24-21. They gave up 21 unanswered points in the second half in a 34-27 loss at Lehigh on Sept. 28. And they bolted to a 20-3 lead at Towson on Oct. 5 before losing, 44-28.

UNH bounced back with a big win at Rhode Island (59-19) and then finally showed a closing kick against Villanova by scoring with 14 seconds left, and getting a two-point conversion run from Setian, to pull out a 29-28 win on Oct. 19 and get to 3-3. The Cats went on to win four of their next five, including last week’s 24-3 decision over then-No. 4/4 Maine, the final win in what had become a long string of must-win games.

“We’ve had our backs against the wall for the last seven games of the year,” Setian said.

So now UNH is the kind of dangerous team no one wants to face in the postseason — a battle-tested group that knows how to finish games and is riding a massive surge of momentum.

“It’s huge. Any time a team is coming into the playoffs with confidence, it’s huge,” Setian said.

The Wildcats won’t be the only team arriving at Cowell today with extra servings of confidence and momentum. Lafayette may be the first team with a losing record to ever make the FCS playoffs, but the Leopards won four of their last five games to earn their league title and the automatic bid that goes with it. And their last two wins were against then-No. 5/5 Fordham, 27-14, and last week at rival and then-No. 15/17 Lehigh, 50-28.

“I’ve played a lot of football games in my life, but that is one (at Lehigh) I will never forget,” Lafayette offensive lineman Maxim Ngolla said at the team’s Monday news conference. “We’re happy and we’re ecstatic, but it’s all to propel us into the next game and into playoffs, and we’re just looking forward and trying to keep the season going now.”

The Leopards have turned things around with increased offensive production. In their first six games, they scored an average of 20.7 points, but that number exploded to 37.4 in their last five games.

New Hampshire’s turnaround has been more about defense. The Wildcats gave up 31.3 points per game during their 1-3 start, but since then they’ve allowed just 16.7 ppg. The crowning jewel of that defensive improvement came in last week’s win against Maine. The Black Bears were averaging 32.5 points per game coming in and had scored at least 19 points in every game before UNH held them to a field goal.

“The (defensive) kids have been much maligned over the years here and especially earlier this year people were taking some shots at them,” UNH coach Sean McDonnell said. “They take great pride in being good football players … and they took great pride in working hard to slow down a very, very good Maine offensive football team.”

That defensive transformation mixed with an offense that’s scoring 31.1 points per game and taking better care of the ball (nine turnovers in the first four games, seven in the last seven) turned into a very nice recipe for success for the Cats.

McDonnell hopes his players can build off that success, but he’s also telling them to forget all about it.

“It’s good because you’re feeling good about what you’re doing, but the other thing is, like we talked about (Sunday), that’s all done,” McDonnell said.

“You finished the way you needed to finish and people recognized it and gave you an opportunity, but everybody is 0-0 right now. And what we have to do is build off the momentum of the things we did well and learn from the things we didn’t do well.”

Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 603-369-3341 or tosullivan@cmonitor.com