|Kevin Decker threw for two scores and ran for two more in UNH’s win last week. (Joe Mahoney/Associated Press)|
Welcome home party
UNH renews its rivalry with visiting Holy Cross
One month to the day of their season opener, the University of New Hampshire football team will finally break out its navy blue tops detailed with white lettering this afternoon at Cowell Stadium.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve worn our blue jerseys. It’s a nice feeling to be home,’’ said coach Sean McDonnell.
The Wildcats (2-1), ranked seventh in the Championship Subdivision, took a tumble at Bowl Subdivision foe Toledo (58-22) before escaping the last two weeks with nail-biting wins at Lehigh (48-41, overtime) and at Richmond (45-43), the program’s first victory against the Spiders since 1994. And counting last year’s playoff matchups at Bethune-Cookman and Delaware, those blue jerseys have been collecting a bit of dust.
Back in Durham, the Wildcats will renew a rivalry that has been dormant for 27 seasons, welcoming Holy Cross (2-1) for the kickoff of a four-year home-and-home series, a boon for the region, but also a trickle-down effect of UMass’s move up to the Mid-American Conference next year.
“This game made too much sense, playing a program in the region, like New Hampshire, rather than jumping on a plane and traveling a thousand miles to play someone else,’’ said Holy Cross coach Tom Gilmore, who worked with McDonnell when they were young assistants at Columbia in 1989.
The result is an intriguing nonconference matchup featuring prolific attacks with a pair of poised fifth-year seniors at quarterback. The Crusaders’ Ryan Taggart has tossed 201 consecutive passes without an interception (his last pick was Oct. 16 at Dartmouth), and Kevin Decker was magnificent in the Wildcats’ upset last week at Richmond, running for a pair of scores and throwing for two more, including a clinching 47-yarder to redshirt freshman R.J. Harris with 2:45 left.
The signal-callers sat early on, understudies to terrific playmakers, the 6-foot-2-inch, 214-pound Taggart to Dominic Randolph, and the 6-2, 205-pound Decker to Ricky Santos and then R.J. Tolman. Taggart and Decker are tied for 13th in the FCS in total offense (284 yards per game).
“They have a similar skill set, and either quarterback could play in either system . . . they both have strong arms, they are accurate, and they can also beat you with their feet,’’ said Gilmore, noting that Decker is at the controls of a “scoring machine.’’
Taggart, said McDonnell, “puts [Holy Cross] in a position to win football games. You watch his eyes, he gets the ball to the receivers he’s supposed to get the ball to.’’
Decker, the Globe’s three-time Class C Player of the Year at the Brunswick School, said the Wildcats have been buoyed by pulling out two close wins in hostile environments.
“The Toledo game really grounded us,’’ he said. “They beat us up, so that was a steppingstone. Everyone just has to do their job. The defense picked us up last week with a couple of returns for scores. The most important thing for me is holding on to the ball.’’
Or letting it fly to receivers such as Joey Orlando and Harris, a player Decker calls “special.’’
On the deep ball against Richmond - a play drawn up by offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey in the fourth quarter after the Spiders had continually charged the line of scrimmage to take away a 5-yard route - “I thought I overthrew [Harris], but to see him just run under the ball was pretty exciting,’’ said Decker, this week’s Gold Helmet winner.
“[The coaches] said, ‘If you see that D, use the stutter and go, and run as fast as you can.’ . . . That was an awesome win down there.’’
McDonnell said that the Wildcats have played “just good enough to get by. We’ve made a few plays on defense, but just can’t keep giving up those kind of points.’’
The Karim brothers, Husain and Muji, earned everything they got at UNH, including admiration - walk-ons to scholarship players.
Husain, a hard-hitting linebacker, led the Wildcats in tackles his final two seasons (2006, ’07) after transferring from Holy Cross. Muji (2003-06) was a four-year letter winner at safety.
The Worcester Academy graduates from Burlington, Vt., suffered devastating injuries in a horrific rollover on Storrow Drive in late August. Donations for their recovery fund will be accepted at today’s game through the purchase of T-shirts.
“Husain played with a chip on his shoulder, he was a great leader, very demanding. Muji had the greatest smile, the coaches loved him,’’ said McDonnell, who visited the two after the win at Lehigh, Husain at Mass. General and Muji at Brigham & Women’s.
“They are getting through it right now, but they understand the battle ahead. They are relying on the lessons learned, on each other, and friends.’’
Decker recalled Husain as a dedicated senior “who really reached out to me as a true freshman. Just so genuine.’’
Former teammates David Ball and E.J. DeWitt are spearheading the recovery fund.
Craig Larson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.