The UNH Wildcats football team improved to 2-0 by virtue of Saturday night’s 23-16 victory over the Ball State Cardinals at Schuemann Stadium in Muncie, IN. The win marked the fifth consecutive time the ‘Cats, a powerhouse in FCS (formerly I-AA) football, knocked off an FBS (formerly I-A) school, as the Cards joined the likes of Rutgers (’04), Northwestern (’06), Marshall (’07) and Army (’08) in feeling the wrath of the defending CAA North Division Champions. What’s more, Ball State wasn’t just any FBS team, it was a team that went undefeated in the 2008 regular season, advancing to the MAC Championship Game and the GMAC Bowl. Indeed, it was a great night to, as Coach Sean McDonnell says, ‘go 1 and 0 on Saturday night.’
So how did it happen? Unlike the previous four conquests of the ‘big boys’ of college football, the groundwork behind Saturday’s triumph began on the defensive side of the football. Even as the UNH offense sputtered early in the opening quarter, the defense collected back-to-back three-and-outs, forcing the Cardinals to attempt field goals. Granted, Ball State kicker Ian McGarvey set a career high by booting a 48-yard field goal with 12:42 to go in the first quarter and followed that up by matching his previous career best with a 47-yarder with 9:25 remaining in the stanza to give the home team the early 6-0 edge before a feisty crowd of 11,884. But it was a lead that was anything but comfortable for the red-and-white.
After one period, the Wildcats defense held the Cardinals offense to one completed pass by redshirt-freshman quarterback Kelly Page and 21 rushing yards on five carries by vaunted senior tailback Quale Lewis. Who could have known that Lewis, the fifth-leading rusher in FBS football in 2008, would be held to NO MORE rushing yards on nine more carries over the remaining three quarters!
The turning point of the game occurred on, of all things, a punt by UNH junior Ryan Glasgow. Facing a 4th-and-22 at the Ball State 44-yard line early in the second quarter, Glasgow was able to pin the Cards back to their one-yard line.
On the very next play, a confused center-quarterback snap momentarily froze the offensive front. Junior linebacker Devon Jackson and junior defensive tackle Steve Young seized the opportunity by racing through the line and into the end zone, throwing Page to the turf for a safety, trimming the Wildcats’ deficit to 6-2 with 13:50 remaining in the half.
The Wildcats offense then kicked things into gear, taking the lead for the first time by putting together a five-play, 52-yard drive midway through the quarter. Junior quarterback R.J. Toman completed three passes on the drive, including a clutch 3rd-and-5 hook-up with senior receiver Travis Negron for 10 yards and back-to-back connections with redshirt-freshman receiver Joey Orlando, who followed up his first career grab for 11 yards by snaring a 26-yard Toman pass for a touchdown with 9:36 remaining in the half. Following Tom Manning’s extra point, it was a 9-6 lead for UNH.
In the absence of senior running back Chad Kackert, junior ball carrier Sean Jellison continued to assert himself as an every-down back, playing a pivotal role on the Wildcats’ second scoring drive. Jellison ran the ball five times for 25 yards, putting the finishing touches on a 9-play, 70-yard drive by diving into the end zone for a 5-yard touchdown, building the lead to 16-6 after a Manning extra point with 3:16 left in the half. Toman did a nice job spreading the wealth on the drive, finding Negron (7 yards), junior Kevon Mason (12 yards) and Orlando (26 yards) to complement Jellison’s work on the ground.
New Hampshire took the 10-point lead into the intermission, with the defense stifling the Ball State offense. The Cardinals were held to a total of 27 yards on 24 first-half plays, including Page’s dismal 3-for-10, 16 yards showing and Lewis’s nine rushes for just 21 yards.
Ball State showed some life coming out of the locker room, as McGarvey connected for his third field goal of the contest, a 37-yarder with 11:12 left in the third quarter, cutting UNH’s advantage to 16-9.
The Wildcats would again turn to their defense for a momentum-shifting play when senior linebacker Sean Ware knocked the ball loose from Lewis, and junior safety Hugo Souza recovered the fumble at the Ball State eight-yard line with 3:55 left in the third period. One play later, Toman fed Jellison with a beautiful option pitch, allowing the tailback to scoot in for his second touchdown of the night, building the lead to 23-9 after Manning’s extra point with 3:47 left in the third.
After Ball State drew within 23-16 on Page’s 21-yard scoring strike to wideout Seth White –the Cardinals only touchdown of the game- at the 8:50 mark of the fourth quarter, the Wildcats defense ensured the Cards would get no closer.
The Cardinals reached the Wildcats’ 20-yard line on their final drive, only to be stalled on a pair of pass break-ups by Ryan Hinds, who earlier recorded his and the team’s second interception of the season, and consecutive sacks by Ware and Jackson to seal the victory.
Jackson, making his first start after sitting out the St. Francis opener with an injury, was deservedly named the CAA Defensive Player of the Week on Monday after making eight tackles (five solo), 2.5 tackles for loss, forcing a fumble and notching a sack.
The UNH defense posted 11 tackles for loss, forced two fumbles, recovering both. Eight different Wildcats tallied at least four tackles, and the unit held Lewis, the fifth-ranked running back in FBS football in 2008, to a grand total of 21 yards on 14 carries in a truly dominant performance.
Toman rebounded from the St. Francis game, where he passed for a career-low 95 yards, by going 21-35 for 212 yards and a touchdown. He was able to find seven different receivers. Orlando had a coming-out party, recording four receptions for 70 yards and a score; Jellison totaled 55 rushing yards and two TDs on 22 carries, while sharing team-high honors in catches with four for an additional 43 yards. UNH did not turn the ball over.
The Wildcats will enjoy a bye week before
hosting state rival Dartmouth at Noon on Saturday, September 26, at