UNH dominates to advance

DURHAM – Frank Tavani has been around the game of football for a long time.

The Lafayette College head coach knows when his team has shot itself in the foot, and he knows when it’s been beaten by a better opponent.

In Saturday’s FCS first-round playoff game at the University of New Hampshire, Tavani and his Leopards found out quickly they were outmatched.

UNH scored on four of its first five possessions and the defense recorded 10 sacks on the way to a 45-7 win over Lafayette at Cowell Stadium. The win gives the Wildcats a playoff date at 2 p.m. on Saturday at Maine, who UNH defeated 24-6 just a week ago.

Jay Colbert led the UNH defense with three of those sacks, including one of the first play from scrimmage, and the Wildcats (8-4) held Lafayette out of the end zone until late in the fourth quarter. That score snapped a streak of eight quarters without allowing a touchdown for UNH.

“It was a really good effort by our team, especially on the defensive side of the ball,” UNH coach Sean McDonnell said. “I thought our pressure was what it needed to be against this team. (Lafayette’s) Drew Reed was as good a quarterback we’ve seen with his efficiency and everything. We felt multiple looks, we could pressure him and it might help the cause, and it sure did.”

Defense wasn’t the only thing working for the Wildcats, as quarterback Sean Goldrich was 15 of 30 passing for 267 and two touchdowns.

One of those went to R.J. Harris, who caught eight passes for 173 yards, while Dalton Crosson had a combined 114 yards of offense with one touchdown rushing and receiving.

Chris Setian and Nico Steriti also had rushing touchdowns for UNH and Nick Cefalo returned a punt 86 yards for a score early in the second quarter that made it 28-0 Wildcats.

“Anytime you get your butt kicked in football, it has to do with your opponent,” Tavani said. “Obviously not our best day, but like I said, the opponent has a lot to do with that. Basically, we imploded on offense, defense and special teams. It looked like we were sleepwalking early. We couldn’t convert a third down and we couldn’t handle the pressure.”

That pressure came from the start, as Colbert exploded around the left side of the line to sack Reed for a 7-yard loss on the game’s first play. Lafayette, which won the Patriot League and finished year 5-7 overall, went three-and-out on the drive and UNH needed just four plays to take the lead on a 1-yard run by Steriti.

The Leopards forced a punt on UNH’s next drive, but a strip sack of Reed by Shane McNeely gave the Wildcats the ball at the Lafayette 22-yard line. On the next play, Goldrich hit Harris for a 22-yard touchdown and a 14-0 lead with 6:32 to go in the first.

“It’s sudden change, what we do after we get a turnover,” McDonnell said. “Offensively, I thought we executed when we had to and made big plays. We hit some pretty good ones. It was a good effort all around for us.”

Lafayette answered with its best drive of the first half, moving to the UNH 35. But from there on fourth-and-4, Reed was sacked by Matt Kaplan for a loss of 13, turning the ball over on downs. Six plays later, Goldrich connected with Crossan on a 17-yard touchdown pass and it was 21-0 UNH with 12 seconds left in the opening quarter.

UNH sacked Reed again on the next series and eventually forced a punt that Cefalo returned 86 yards for a 28-0 lead with 11:42 left in the first half. Mike MacArthur’s 23-yard field goal as time expired gave UNH a 31-0 lead at halftime.

“We tried to make some adjustments,” Tavani said. “We were outmanned at spots and that was clear from the very first series. It had nothing to do with scheme. It was a complete breakdown in all three phases.”

For the second time in two weeks, UNH will face one of its biggest rivals when it heads to Orono to face Maine. The Wildcats defeated the Black Bears 24-3 at Cowell Stadium on Nov. 23 thanks in part to another stellar defensive performance.

“We’ve been maligned around here for some time about the defense,” McDonnell said, “but our kids have a simple understanding on the defensive side: get the ball back and get off the field on third down. We’re maturing as a defensive football team. We can do some things that we haven’t done in the past because of the experience we got through this year.”