New Hampshire has qualified for the FCS playoffs for nine straight seasons, the longest current streak in the nation. The question is whether that’s a blessing or a burden for the Wildcats coming into a Colonial Athletic Association matchup 4 p.m. Saturday at Stony Brook that figures to be a make-or-break game for the playoff hopes of both teams.
Each school began the season nationally ranked but got off to 1-3 starts before winning their past two games to reach .500 at 3-3. The 20th-ranked Wildcats are 2-1 in CAA play after upsetting Villanova, 29-28, last week on a two-point conversion, while the unranked Seawolves have a 1-2 league record. The 24-team FCS playoff format requires teams to have seven Division I wins, and since UNH and SBU each play just 11 games, that means a 7-4 record at the worst and probably no more than three conference losses.
“Since they’ve been to the playoffs nine years in a row, I really think there’s a lot of pressure on them and zero on us,” Priore said. “If they lose, they’re done. Last week was huge pressure on them. There’s zero pressure on us. We’re the new guy on the block. We’ve just got to compete.”
The loser of this game still could win out to finish 7-4, but with so many quality CAA teams in the running for a playoff berth, including Towson (7-1), Maine (6-1), Delaware (5-2), James Madison (5-2), Villanova (4-3) and William & Mary (4-3), the UNH-SBU contest might wind up being viewed by the selection committee as a tiebreaker of sorts.
While the Wildcats were fighting for their lives against Villanova last week, Stony Brook was fortunate to have a bye week to provide time for injuries to heal and for the Seawolves’ defense to prepare to face New Hampshire’s spread offense.
There was good news and bad news on the injury front for Priore’s team. The bad news is that leading rusher Jameel Poteat is out with a sprained ankle. James Kenner and Tyler Fredericks will get the bulk of the carries in his place. The good news is that linebacker Reggie Francklin and backup running back Jamie Williams are healthy. Also, quarterback Lyle Negron and linebacker Jawara Dudley had time to rest shoulder injuries that are likely to bother them the rest of the season.
As for the Seawolves’ defense, it must contend with the option threat of quarterback Sean Goldrich, who is a 70.3 percent passer and averages 4.5 yards per carry, and a rotation of three effective running backs, including Nico Steriti (518 yards-6.0 avg.), Chris Setian (174-6.0) and Dalton Crossan (181-12.1). Lake Ronkonkoma’s Crossan, who was co-winner of Newsday’s Hansen Award as the best player in Suffolk County last season, earned CAA rookie of the week honors for his performance against Villanova.
“They do a lot of things, so, the bye week was absolutely crucial,” Priore said. “We’ve never played against them before, so, our coaches had time to examine it and figure out what we can do and, more importantly, what we can’t do. It was very valuable.”
The Wildcats’ Goldrich actually is the backup quarterback to Andy Vailas, who reportedly has recovered sufficiently from an injury to be available this week as backup for Goldrich. No matter who is at quarterback, UNH will be without center Mike Coccia, who underwent season-ending shoulder surgery after 30 straight starts over three seasons. Freshman Tad McNeely replaces him.
“That’s going to be a tough thing for them,” Priore said. “[Coccia] has taken every snap of every play of every game.”
Still, New Hampshire’s offense is a potent force, ranking 13th nationally in rushing (241.5 yards per game), 14th in total offense (480.7) and 20th in scoring (36.2). But Stony Brook’s defense never has been stronger, ranking seventh against the pass (153.7), eighth in scoring defense (18.7) and 11th in total defense (307.2).
Describing the Wildcats, Priore said, “They’re a good football program, a well-coached team. They’re potentially explosive offensively and a well-coached defensive team. They take a lot of chances offensively. They’ve fumbled the ball 15 times [losing seven]. They’ve put their defense in some predicaments with turnovers, but they’re a well-balanced team, a good CAA team.”