#15 Lehigh at #18 New Hampshire – 26 Nov 2:00 P.M. Wildcat Stadium Durham, NH
(Live Streaming on ESPN3)
For the 5th time in 7 years Lehigh (9-2) and New Hampshire (7-4) will butt heads on the gridiron. This time however, the stakes will be much higher as the Mountain Hawks and Wildcats meet in the First Round of the FCS Playoffs. While they’ve been frequent foes in recent years, this will be the first postseason meeting between the two Northeast powers since 1975 when they met as Division 2 programs. New Hampshire won that game 35-21 at Lehigh’s old Taylor Stadium. This will be the 15th meeting all-time between Lehigh and New Hampshire. The pride of the Granite State leads the all-time series 12-3.
The FCS version of New Hampshire will be making their 13th straight playoff appearance which is the longest streak in the history of the subdivision. It’s the Wildcats 15th visit overall to the 1-AA/FCS postseason. Had the Wildcats failed to beat Maine last weekend in Orono their playoff streak would most certainly have come to an end. As it is, they enter the playoffs having already survived one win or go home game. Last year New Hampshire was upset by Patriot Leaguer Colgate 27-20 in the first round. It was the first time the Wildcats lost to a team from the Patriot League in the FCS playoffs. UNH beat soundly beat their 3 previous (Colgate ’05, Lafayette ’13, Fordham ’14) Patriot League postseason opponents by an average score of 48 to 15.
Lehigh will be making their first playoff appearance since 2011 when they earned a bye before defeating CAA champion Towson 40-38 in the 2nd round. The Mountain Hawks would fall 24-0 to eventual national champion North Dakota State the following week in Fargo. This will be Lehigh’s 10th 1-AA/FCS playoff appearance overall and 8th as a member of the Patriot League. The league did not allow its members to participate in the playoffs from the league’s inception in 1986 through the 1996 season. Colgate became the first league member to participate in postseason play in 1997. The following year Lehigh earned the Patriot League’s first ever playoff win with a thrilling 24-23 victory over Richmond. The Mountain Hawks are 5-2 in first round games during the Patriot League era. Unfortunately for Lehigh, they are 0-5 in their next playoff game. Lehigh is 3-5 all-time against the A10/CAA in postseason play.
If Lehigh wants to take down the Wildcats on their home turf the offense needs to continue to roll along. The Mountain Hawks have averaged 45 ppg on their current 9 game winning streak. The unit is led by Patriot League Offensive Player of the Year Nick Shafnisky (66 comp %, 2448 yards 20 TDs 5 INTs, 95 carries 302 yards 10 TDs). The senior duel-threat QB drove defenses crazy all year with his ability to make plays from the pocket with his arm or by attacking the open field with his legs. His improved accuracy down the field this year helped to make an already explosive offense even more potent. Having a trio of wide receivers as talented as Troy Pelletier (88 rec 1,140 yards 11 TDs), Gatlin Casey (58 rec 1,098 yards 14 TDs) and Derek Knott (52 rec 683 yards 3 TDs) certainly makes Shafnsiky’s job a little easier. As does having 1,000 rusher Dominic Bragalone (193 carries 1,107 yards 13 TDs) as a running mate in the backfield.
New Hampshire will look to First Team All-CAA defenders Cam Shorey (19 solo tackles, 8 TFL, 2 Sacks) and Casey DeAndrade (39 solo tackles, 2 INTs, 2 Forced Fumbles) to lead the way when it comes to slowing down the explosive Mountain Hawk offense. Defensive lineman Cam Shorey and his fellow front 7 mates will need to get pressure on Shafnisky in order to disrupt the 6th ranked passing offense in FCS. The Wildcats rank 59th in FCS against the pass (217.7 ypg allowed). UNH will also need to contain Lehigh’s zone-read rushing attack which quietly carved up opponents for much of the year. The Wildcats have been rather stout against (140.5 ypg allowed) the run for much of the season. Arguably, their worst performance of the year came against Albany two weeks ago when the Danes ran for 295 yards in a 36-25 win over UNH. They bounced back last week by limiting Maine to 124 yards on the ground.
The Wildcats will need to neutralize one aspect of the Lehigh offense in order to advance. Their best bet might be focusing on the run and force Shafnisky to beat them with his arm. If Lehigh can use the run to set up the pass their offense is even more difficult to defend. The Mountain Hawk ground game also allows the offense to maintain favorable down and distance scenarios which is why they’re among the best teams in the country on 3rd down (51%, 6th in FCS). If UNH can make the Lehigh offense more predictable it’ll go a long towards slowing it down. Bucknell’s ability to hold up at the line of scrimmage allowed them to use this formula two weeks ago (93 rushing yards allowed) with great success in a near upset win. The Bison held the Lehigh offense to a season low 20 points.
Should the New Hampshire defense struggle to slow down Lehigh, the pressure will fall on the Wildcat “O” to keep pace. UNH has proven to be capable of scoring in bunches at times during the regular season (35+ on four occasions) but they’ve also had the propensity to bog down which resulted in a rather pedestrian 25.9 ppg average on the year. To make things trickier for UNH, starting QB Trevor Knight (57 comp %, 1,645 yards 14 TDs 10 INTs) might miss the game with due to an injury (lower leg/foot) he suffered against Maine. If he can’t go Adam Riese will likely get the nod. The senior QB went 20-37 with 1 TD and 1 INT against the Black Bears in relief. Riese started 3 games last year so he shouldn’t be uncomfortable as the #1 should his name be called.
Outside of the unsettled situation at QB, there is quite a bit to like about the UNH’s offense. The Wildcats feature a balanced group of receivers and a physical presence at RB in Dalton Crosson (2nd team All-CAA; 194 carries,1,005 yards). Redshirt Freshman Malik Love (56 rec 476 yards 1 TD) and sophomore Neil O’Connor (45 rec 596 yards 5 TDs) are small (both under 6 feet) but elusive wide receivers. The duo should find some opportunities against a Mountain Hawk secondary that does up big plays in space from time to time. Overall though, Lehigh has been solid against the pass (206 ypg allowed, 3rd PL) for most of the year.
The key for New Hampshire will be committing to the run like Villanova did (396 yards rushing) early in the year when they beat Lehigh 25-21. Dalton Crosson could be in line for a big game against a Lehigh front seven that will likely be without leading tackler Colton Caslow (54 solo tackles 10 TFL, 1st Team All PL). The senior captain suffered a sprain knee against Lafayette last Saturday. As a result, the captain seems destined to miss this week’s game. The Mountain Hawk defense has been susceptible to run all season (191 ypg allowed, 6th in PL) so the loss of their leader could be especially costly. If UNH can rush for 250+ yards as a team and win the TOP battle there’s a good chance they’ll come out on top.
More than a few people were surprised when it was announced that Lehigh would be making the 380 mile trek to Durham for the game. Many people assumed the Mountain Hawks would be home for a first round game given the season they had and a stadium that’s among the better venues in FCS. As it is, Lehigh must go into a place that has generally proven to be a nightmare for the visiting team over the last 13 years. However, New Hampshire’s playoff loss to Colgate last year and two regular season losses this season at home should give Lehigh a little extra boost of confidence.
Lehigh is a veteran squad who should not be intimidated by the stakes or the location of the game. Conversely, Wildcat head coach Sean McDonnell has done an excellent job getting the most out of a team that had to overcome youth and inexperience at several positions. There were a few bumps in the road but when it’s all said and done, 6-2 in the CAA, a win over rival Maine and a 13th straight playoff appearance is another very successful season in Durham.
With an offense that’s loaded with veteran playmakers and a defense that became a reliable unit, Lehigh has ingredients to win on the road in the FCS playoffs. New Hampshire will be focused and ready to go after what happened against Colgate in last year’s playoffs. While motivation is often a huge intangible, that alone won’t be enough to overcome a Lehigh team that’s played about as well as anyone in FCS over the last 2 months.
Prediction: Lehigh 44 New Hampshire 31