New season, old foe

By Eli Rosenswaike, Collegian Staff

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Brian Tedder/Collegian

This year’s matchup between New Hampshire and the Massachusetts football team has its typical storylines: Liam Coen versus Ricky Santos, a historic rivalry with intriguing recent history and playoff implications for both teams.

But Saturday’s meeting at McGuirk Stadium has an added bonus. Both teams enter the game frustrated and angry, and each will look to take that frustration out on each other after losing to winless teams in the conference last weekend.

The Minutemen (7-2, 5-1 Colonial Athletic Association) fell in overtime, 12-6, to conference foe Rhode Island, while the Wildcats (6-3, 3-3 CAA) were dominated by Northeastern, 31-13, in Durham, N.H.

With just one conference loss and seven wins, UMass appears to be in good position for a playoff spot. The No. 14 Wildcats have struggled in conference play and a victory over the No. 8 Minutemen would be critical to the playoff hopes for coach Sean McDonnell and his team.

“It’s a game that’s marked on our schedule every year to play,” McDonnell said during this week’s CAA teleconference. “When you get to this time of the year and you’re playing them at their place, these rivalry games are just great games to be playing.

“But they’re very difficult and we have a major, major challenge to try to get by them this week.”

UMass and UNH met in the playoffs last year during the NCAA quarterfinals, the second of two meetings between the teams in 2006. The Minutemen won both of those meetings; a 24-17 victory in the playoffs in Amherst and a 28-20 win in Durham towards the end of the regular season.

The Minutemen first played the Wildcats in 1897 and the rivals have met every year since 1952. UMass has won four of the last five meetings, including the last two.

Santos and UNH were stunned last Saturday by the Huskies. Northeastern running back Maurice Morris had 55 carries for 206 yards, as the Huskies had control of the football for over 48 minutes – keeping Santos and the offense off the field. NU picked up 13-of-20 third downs and converted 3-of-4 on fourth down.

UMass was surprised as well Saturday, losing to the Rams in a windy, rain-soaked affair in Kingston, R.I. The offense struggled in the elements, picking up seven first downs and converting on just 2-of-16 third downs.

But both teams have moved on from their respective setbacks, and look forward to this weekend’s game.

“We’re coming off a loss and we have to find a way to win a football game on the road against a very good football team,” McDonnell said. “All those challenges are on our hands and we’re going to find out a lot about our football team.”

“The reality is it’s a 12-6 loss and we still have everything in front of us,” UMass coach Don Brown said during the teleconference, referencing Saturday’s loss to URI. “We’ve got a very, very good UNH football team coming into McGuirk on Saturday.”

Santos leads the Wildcat offense, picking up where he left off in 2006 – a season that culminated in the Walter Payton Award, which is given to the top player in the Football Championship Subdivision. The 6-foot-2 quarterback from Bellingham has accounted for 27 touchdowns this season (18 passing, 9 rushing), and has only been intercepted four times. He’s also completed a career-high 73.3 percent of his passes.

Santos is listed as probable for Saturday’s contest with an injured shoulder, but is expected to play. The injury kept him out of the Oct. 13 matchup with Iona, but he’s started all three games since then.

Brown and the defense know it will be a tough challenge to contain Santos, but it had success in both meetings last season – and they think that they can duplicate that success.

“He can kill you if you let him run around,” Brown said. “We really have to do a good job chasing him around and keeping him in the pocket. We think we have the athletes to do that.”

Santos finished last year with 384 rushing yards and was second in the conference with 12 rushing touchdowns. But in two meetings against the Minutemen in 2006, he carried the ball 33 times (for 84 yards) without reaching the end zone.

This season Santos leads the second-best scoring offense in the CAA, averaging 38.7 points per game – despite the loss of playmaker David Ball at wideout. Keith LeVan has assumed that role for Santos, leading the conference in touchdown receptions with 10.

UNH uses a variety of running backs on offense, with Robert Simpson (272) and Chad Kackert (222) leading the way. Santos ranks second on the team with 234 rushing yards.

The Wildcats have struggled on the defensive end, allowing 30.3 points per game – the exact total the Minutemen have averaged on offense this season. UMass leads the CAA in scoring defense, allowing 18.7 points per game.

“It’s a typical UMass team; they’re a dominating team on defense,” McDonnell said. “UMass is a very, very good football team. When they’re firing on all cylinders and they’re ready to go, this is the best team we play. Period.”

If the Wildcats can’t figure out the Minutemen, it will be one of the last game’s they play this season.

Eli Rosenswaike can be reached at [email protected]