Wildcats ready for Bison: New Hampshire plays top-ranked North Dakota semifinals of FCS playoffs
FARGO — The University of New Hampshire woke up on the morning of Sunday, Oct. 6, with a gigantic wall of sorts around its football program. With a 1-3 record, the players and coaches had their collective backs up against it.
The Wildcats had just dropped a key Colonial Athletic Association game to Towson, which came one week after a nonconference loss to Lehigh.
“I just think our kids knew the mentality that they needed,” said New Hampshire head coach Sean McDonnell. “To get into the playoffs, we’ve been in that mode, and that hasn’t changed since Oct. 6.”
That mentality has gotten them all the way to the FCS semifinals against North Dakota State on Friday night at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome. It’s the first semifinal berth in school history, and it has come on the heels of six straight wins.
McDonnell said he can’t really pinpoint the reason for the season turnaround, although he acknowledged a healthier team is one reason.
A 59-19 win against Rhode Island started the string of nine wins in their last 10 games. Five of the victories came against ranked teams: Villanova, James Madison, Southeastern Louisiana and twice against Maine.
“We’ve had our backs against the wall most of the season,” said New Hampshire safety Manny Asam. “It’s become something that we’re used to, accustomed to playing under pressure and knowing that at this point it’s one and done. We’ve been one and done since October, and right now, we’re just going on to the next game.”
Furman, NDSU’s second-round opponent, was in a similar predicament starting the season 2-4. The Paladins rallied with six wins in their last seven games to claim the Southern Conference automatic berth.
The Wildcats needed to beat Maine, ranked fourth at the time, in the last regular-season game. They did that and were awarded an at-large selection to the FCS field at 7-4. They’ve since won three straight including a rematch victory against Maine on the road and the quarterfinal win at Southeastern last Saturday.
“Just the way they play, they play hard on both sides of the ball and on special teams,” said NDSU offensive tackle Billy Turner. “And they’re a very well-coached team. That is something that is a little different from a couple of teams we have played.”
Because of an eastern snowstorm, the Wildcats didn’t get back home until Sunday afternoon. That won’t be a factor this week, Asam said.
“It wasn’t a big deal for us,” he said. “We just went with it and embraced it. We got back home and got to work to get ready for North Dakota State.”
McDonnell said the shorter preparation time with the Friday game only means the Wildcats didn’t get their normal day off early in the week. They’ll practice Monday through Wednesday with a light workout Thursday rather than Tuesday through Thursday practice with the light day on Friday.
“That’s a concern but at the same time we’re 14 games into it,” McDonnell said. “We have a pretty good idea what we’re doing, and we should be able to get the prep work that we need.”