Through the first four games of the 2011 season, the UNH football team has shown that it likes to live on the edge. Not by choice, of course, but that's the way it's happened so far. But according to both players and coaches, that needs to change - soon.
Because this weekend, when UNH hosts the Wildcats of Villanova at Cowell Stadium, the home Wildcats would like to close things out and not let Villanova get within striking distance close to game's end.
Villanova historically has been a very good football program – one that has always given UNH a tough test. However, this year ‘Nova has an uncharacteristically sub-par record, coming in at 1-4. With losses to Towson and Monmouth highlighting their schedule, the ‘Nova Wildcats have shown that experience plays a large part of a team's success.
After graduating great impact players like Matt Szczur, Chris Whitney, Angelo Babbaro, Aaron Ball, and Ben Ijalana, the Villanova roster in 2011 is filled with inexperience. However, as UNH head coach Sean McDonnell said on Wednesday, it's still a game that UNH will absolutely not take lightly.
"I see a team that's getting better," McDonnell said. "This is a team that when you looked at it early in the year with Dustin Thomas, their quarterback, was doing some things that I think were very, very good offensively with that kid's abilities. … Unfortunately for them, he got hurt. Now the kid that's come in, Christian Culicerto, he has done a really good job, and they're starting to find out what makes him go."
Thomas is a redshirt freshman who was injured in Villanova's first game of the season. Since then, ‘Nova has had some difficulty at the quarterback position, with Culicerto being the better of two options for the Wildcats. As McDonnell alluded to, though, the coaches at Villanova are starting to find a niche for the senior quarterback. One thing he said that UNH is expecting Villanova to do routinely is run the spread option offense, which is getting better week by week.
Villanova's lone win of the season came two weekends ago against the University of Pennsylvania, although the Wildcats narrowly missed taking down William & Mary last weekend.
The youthful ‘Nova defense has played surprisingly well so far, McDonnell said. Villanova's two starting linebackers, Joey Harmon and Dillon Lucas, were both recruited by UNH.
"They are a physical front. They're the three-three stack, which we don't see a whole lot of," McDonnell said. "They are going to make you pass the football; they're going to get eight people involved in the run to stop it. … We had a little bit of success last year running the ball against them. I think they are as stout as they've been inside, and their linebackers aren't as big physically, but they can really run."
Last weekend UNH enjoyed success passing the football as the team improved its record to 3-1 on the year. Senior quarterback Kevin Decker led the way for the Wildcats with 352 passing yards, throwing for four touchdowns and no interceptions. Now, with redshirt freshman receiver R.J. Harris returning from suspension, the team has it's explosive wide receiving core almost at full strength, save for Chris Chandler, who will be a game-time decision with a high ankle sprain.
UNH's 39-32 win over Holy Cross marked a first for the Wildcats in two categories on the season: it was the first game the defense hadn't given up more than 40 points in a game, and it was the first time this year UNH had a 100-yard rusher.
Decker echoed coach Mac's sentiments about the Villanova defense, and said that it'll be tough to put up points against a team that hasn't given them up easily this year.
"Their defense still looks really good on film," Decker said. "They run the same D they've been running the past few years. They have a lot of young talent, especially at linebacker, and they've got most of their secondary back with [James] Pitts, and they've got [Eric] Loper playing a little bit of linebacker."
Decker added that Nova's defense blitzes around 70 percent of the time, so the offensive line of UNH should have its hands full come Saturday afternoon.
Kickoff at Cowell Stadium is scheduled for 12 p.m. for the 6/7-ranked Wildcats.