Colonial Clash: UNH set for first ever collegiate game at Gillette Stadium
There will be a marquee football game played this weekend at Gillette Stadium, but it will not be between the New England Patriots and one of their NFL rivals.
This Saturday, the UNH football team will travel down to Foxboro, Mass., to take on the University of Massachusetts Minutemen in the first collegiate football game ever played at Gillette.
UNH head coach Sean McDonnell said his team is excited to play one of their biggest CAA foes in such a great environment.
"[The game] is in a venue that is as good as it gets in New England football, and you have two very good programs that have a history of being very successful … and are playing each other in a game that means something," McDonnell said. "You have to be oblivious to everything that is going on around here not to be excited about playing, and I think our kids are pretty excited."
McDonnell said his team is also excited to be playing in such a big matchup coming off arguably their biggest win of the season. The Wildcats upset the then- sixth-ranked James Madison University last Saturday, 28-14, in front of a hostile crowd at JMU's Homecoming game. UNH outscored the Dukes, 18-0, in the second half en route to the victory.
McDonnell thought that that execution was the key to UNH taking control of the game down the stretch and completing the upset.
"You look at that game, in the second half, we didn't turn the football over, we finished drives by kicking field goals, finished drives by scoring touchdowns," McDonnell said. "And then defensively, we were good in the second half … and we got the ball turned over to us. That's a big thing."
While the Wildcat offense has been playing well, it is the defense that has been key for UNH in recent games. The Wildcats have given up just 10 points per game over the last 4 games. UNH is 3-1 in that stretch, with their only loss coming in overtime against Maine. The defense has managed to force 13 turnovers over the last three games as well, including two turnovers that have been returned for touchdowns.
Linebacker Matt Evans has been an unexpected leader on defense for the Wildcats. Evans leads the CAA in tackles (80), including a career-high 14 stops against JMU. Evans also returned a fumble for a touchdown just three minutes into the first quarter, giving the Wildcats an early 7-0 lead. The sophomore has helped make up for the loss of senior linebacker and captain Devon Jackson, who has been out since the second game of the season with a shoulder injury.
"I knew he [Evans] had the athletic ability, but the thing that has made us all pleased by the way he's playing is that he's understanding where he's supposed to be and what he's supposed to do," McDonnell said.
Evans and the rest of the Wildcat defense have a tough task ahead of them, as UMass' 408.8 yards-per-game ranks first in the CAA in total offense. Senior quarterback Kyle Havens' 210.8 passing yards-per-game is second to only UNH senior R.J. Toman (231 pass ypg) for the CAA lead. Meanwhile, the Minutemen offense boasts a two-headed rushing attack in running backs John Griffin (96.8 ypg) and Jonathan Hernandez (83.3 ypg). McDonnell said that containing UMass' power running game is crucial for the Wildcats.
They aren't looking to finesse you, they are looking to really run downhill," McDonnell said. "Our guys really have to tackle well on Saturday, because they break a lot of tackles."
Last weekend, however, the explosive UMass offense grinded to a halt in an 11-10 loss to the University of Richmond. Despite UMass' poor showing against a Richmond team in which UNH defeated 17-0 just a week before, McDonnell said that last weekend's result means nothing come Saturday.
"Throw that out the window, that absolutely means nothing," McDonnell said of UMass' loss to Richmond.
The Minutemen defense is highlighted by their linebacking core, which is led by junior linebacker Tyler Holmes. Holmes ranks fifth in the CAA with 59 tackles, while fellow linebacker Mike Mele is not far behind with 52 tackles on the season.
"Holmes and Evans I think are the best two linebackers in the league right now," McDonnell said.
UNH (4-3, 2-2) will look to leapfrog UMass (4-2, 2-1) in the CAA standings with a win heading into the Wildcats' bye week the following weekend. In order to do that, McDonnell said UNH needs to focus in on a number of important areas.
"We are going to have stop the run, we are going to have to protect the quarterback, we are going to have to run the football. Special teams are going to be paramount as well," McDonnell said. "This game is going to be a typical UNH-UMass war."
Game time at Gillette Stadium is scheduled to begin at 3:30 p.m.
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