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UMass slows down potent UNH offense in a thriller.

Maxwell SparrFor most of the first half, the Massachusetts football team was simply hanging around against fourth-ranked New Hampshire. But with a 13-play, 87-yard scoring drive to take the lead in the closing minutes of the second quarter, the Minutemen proved that they were for real.

Down 17-13 midway through the fourth quarter, the No. 18 Minutemen proved that they were a match for the heavily-favored Wildcats. When Jonathan Hernandez dove from the four-yard line and struck the pylon at the end of a 42-yard run, the Minutemen showed that they could go the distance, completing the upset of UNH by a score of 23-17.

Hernandez rushed for 166 yards and a touchdown, winning the Bill Knight trophy for UMass-UNH game MVP in the process. Starting in place of Tony Nelson (two carries for four yards), who is still hampered by a contusion on his thigh, Hernandez put up another stellar performance in a spot start.

“Really impressed by Hernandez,” UNH coach Sean McDonnell said after Saturday’s game. “I saw him run earlier in the Stony Brook game. A low pad-level guy that’s a good football player, played well out in the end.”

The biggest surprise of the game, though, was the play of the UMass defense. After being shredded for 43 points a week ago against Delaware, the Minutemen (4-2, 2-1 Colonial Athletic Association) held the top ranked offense in the CAA to 17 points.

“It all started at practice this week. We had our best week of practice. We played as one,” said defensive end Michael Hanson of the defense’s performance.

After a lackluster first half, the offense for UNH (5-1, 2-1 CAA) woke up in the third quarter and began to look like the team that leads the CAA in scoring offense. The UMass defense, only a week after the drumming it received from Delaware, looked like the unit that shut down opponents during the first three games of the season.

Late in the third quarter, following a Kyle Havens interception at the UMass 40-yard line, the Minutemen held off a UNH attack that was finally starting to click and show aggressiveness. No play was more aggressive, though, than a double-reverse flea flicker trick play that was well-defended by UMass, almost intercepting the pass. The Minutemen eventually held the Wildcats to a field goal.

Following a Havens interception on the next drive, though, UNH would not be denied again. Toman took the Wildcat offense straight down the field on an eight-play, 56-yard drive, and capped it off with a six-yard pass to Scott Sicko, making it 17-10 with 12 minutes, 48 seconds remaining in the game. The completion marked the second connection in the endzone between Toman and Sicko.

UMass responded with a strong drive of its own. Havens bounced back from his prior errors and engineered a 13-play, 57-yard drive that ended in an Armando Cuko 36-yard field goal to make it 17-13.

The Minutemen still needed the ball back, though, and that’s exactly what they got on the ensuing drive as UNH went three-and-out with a chance to put away the game. Pressure from the UMass front four kept Toman off-balance on the drive, preventing the UNH passer from breaking out of the pocket.

It didn’t take long for UMass to respond. On the third play of the drive, Hernandez busted through the left side of the line and down the sideline for what would turn out to be the winning score.

“The hole was huge. I could’ve fit a car through that hole,” Hernandez said of the decisive play.

UMass added another 41-yard field goal to make it 23-17, but with 1:26 on the clock, the Wildcats still had a chance.

The UNH offense drove down the field, converting on a fourth-and-nine in the process to get into the UMass redzone. Aided by a roughing the passer call on defensive end Anthony Monette, Toman took the Wildcats down to the UMass 13-yard line before spiking the ball to stop the clock with three seconds remaining in the game.

On the game’s final play, Toman dropped back and fired into the endzone. The only receiver he found, though, was UMass defensive back Kumar Davis, who intercepted the pass, kneeled down and ended the game.

“Honestly, I was just thinking about my fundamentals. All week, they had just been telling us, ‘fundamentals, fundamentals will get you through.’” Davis said of the thoughts running through his mind on the play. “So, I just went up and tried to play the ball, tried to make a play on it. It happened to come right into my hands.”

The Wildcats drew first blood in the game when Toman hit tight end Scott Sicko over the middle and, with a defensive breakdown by the Minutemen, scampered 58 yards for the score. The UMass defense went for the pick on the play and paid the price as Sicko went almost untouched as he knifed through the center of the defense.

The early touchdown was the only score of the first quarter as both offenses failed to advance much further than midfield. The Minutemen had success in the battle for field position early on in the game, especially with the help of punter Caleb Violette, whose first three punts pinned UNH within its own 10-yard line.

Field position would play a big factor in UMass’ first score. Kicking from the UNH 9-yard line, Wildcats punter Ryan Glasgow shanked a 26-yard punt. The Minutemen took advantage of the excellent field position as Armando Cuko kicked a 31-yard field goal to bring it to 7-3 with 11:42 left in the second quarter.

Nick O’Malley can be reached at nomalley@student.umass.edu.

UMass defeats UNH 23-17

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