FOXBORO — Turnovers and miscues dug the Massachusetts football team into a hole it could not escape from as New Hampshire led the entire way and emerged on top, 27-21, in the second annual Colonial Clash at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro on Saturday.
UMass (4-3, 0-0 Colonial Athletic Association) cut the deficit to six with 1:45 remaining in the game, but UNH recovered the ensuing onside kick attempt to seal its victory in the final chapter of the storied rivalry that started back in 1897, with the teams meeting annually since 1952.
Wildcat junior Dontra Peters was awarded the Bill Knight Trophy as the game’s most valuable player after rushing for 92 yards and two touchdowns, in addition to racking up 98 return-yards.
Senior Julian Talley set career-highs with 10 receptions and 113 receiving yards but it was all for naught as the Minutemen could not complete their comeback bid.
UNH (5-2, 3-1 CAA) wasted no time getting started as Peters found the end zone with a 5-yard rush on the first drive of the game, followed by a successful two-point conversion to put the Wildcats on top 8-0 with less than three minutes shaved off the clock. Peters set up UNH with a short field to start the drive with a 44-yard kickoff return, swinging momentum to its sideline to start the game.
The Minutemen did not have the same luck to start as their counterparts.
UMass’ first two drives ended in a Kellen Pagel interception in the end zone and a Jonathan Hernandez fumble that turned into three points for the Wildcats on a Mike MacArthur 47-yard field goal to extend the lead to 11-0.
“The difference in the game … was what happened in the beginning,” said UMass coach Kevin Morris. “They came out strong with a great kick return and were able to punch that in for a score and we were playing from behind for the rest of the ballgame and weren’t able to overcome our own mistakes.”
The Minutemen offense kicked it into gear midway through the second quarter, when Talley took the ball 23 yards, bouncing off a would-be tackler and crossing the goal line to put UMass on the board, 11-6. The ensuing two-point conversion failed, however, after a Pagel pass fell incomplete.
Trailing by 12 to start the fourth quarter, the Minutemen made it a one-possession game on a 5-yard touchdown run by Pagel, breaking a tackle as he fell into the end zone with 10:43 remaining in the game. The PAT failed once again, however, as sophomore kicker Brendon Levengood missed his second PAT attempt of the day to keep the score 24-18. On the drive, UMass drove 80 yards on 19 plays while taking 8:59 off the clock.
Just as it appeared the Minutemen were ready to take over the game, Wildcat quarterback Kevin Decker made what could arguably be known as the play of the game.
As UNH tried to extend its lead to a two-possession margin, Decker converted a third and nine on UMass’ 40-yard line to put the Wildcats in field-goal position. The senior captain was under great duress from the Minutemen pass rush, but scrambled to buy enough time to hit redshirt freshman Jimmy Giansante along the sideline for a first down.
“Decker did a great job,” said Morris. “We knew that’s what he was capable of doing and he stepped up again and did a great job of scrambling, evading pressure and making plays.”
Hernandez rushed 29 times for 89 yards and a touchdown, as the Wildcats held the senior in check for the most of the first half until UMass finally began to find production on the ground.
Pagel completed 25-of-42 passes for 249 yards and an interception. The Minutemen found success in the short passing game, which eventually opened up running lanes for Hernandez.
Despite losing the rivalry with UNH, Morris is optimistic that new ones will form as the team enters the Mid-American Conference next season.
“Well, I think it’s one of those things where you move up, move on,” said Morris. “We got a future ahead in the MAC conference. We’ll create some rivalries there.”
The atmosphere was electric Saturday with an attendance of 24,022 fans at the game. UMass will relocate its home games from McGuirk Alumni Stadium to Gillette Stadium next season.
“There’s no better venue in the country to play NFL football in or obviously in college football so we’ll be very excited to make this our home field,” said Morris.
UMass will look to rebound this upcoming Saturday at CAA-foe Richmond.
Stephen Sellner can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @MDC_Sellner.