Thirty-six hours didn’t dull the edge in New Hampshire coach Sean McDonnell’s voice.
Euphoria can leave a residue when advancing in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs means knocking out a rival at the same time.
So in the wake of the Wildcats notching a 41-27, second-round victory Saturday against No. 5 seed Maine, McDonnell’s raspy tenor picked up a beat when ask to reminisce.
“It was a hell of a game,” he said Monday. “It was teams trading haymakers. We were fortunate that we lasted a little bit longer.”
The reward for UNH (9-4) after beating a border rival? A nearly 1,600-mile road trip for a quarterfinal date at 6 p.m. Saturday against No. 4 seed Southeastern Louisiana (11-2) at Strawberry Stadium. But no quibbling emanated from the Durham, N.H., campus.
In early October, the Wildcats trudged off the field after an early 20-3 lead against Colonial Athletic Association rival Towson turned into a 44-28 loss. Quarterback Andy Vailas went down with a knee injury, and a rebuilt defense was allowing 477.8 yards and 31.3 yards per game.
When the team was sitting at 1-3, discussing a potential CAA title run or postseason positioning seemed presumptuous.
“We talked about what we were capable of,” quarterback Sean Goldrich said. “What kind of team did we want to be? We stopped talking about the big picture and being CAA champions and making it to the playoffs. We just tried to conquer one day at practice leading up to a game.”
Narrowing their field of vision bred the desired result: eight victories in their past nine games. That has come behind an offense ably led by Goldrich, a sophomore whose 164.3 passing yards per game belie his ability to move an offense that is averaging 441.4 yards and 33.2 points.
“It was just something that wasn’t ever in my control,” Goldrich said. “So I had to sit back and wait for my opportunity. Coach finally gave me a chance, and every game gave me an opportunity to learn where we wanted to go with the ball and what we wanted to do.”
Vailas made bids to return, but Goldrich proved the steadier hand.
“We just kept taking a look at it,” McDonnell said. “He just kept putting us in great situations all the time. Not that Andy didn’t, but (Goldrich) was just doing it consistently.”
At Maine on Saturday, UNH fell behind 7-3 on a 88-yard kickoff return for a score. But Goldrich affirmed McDonnell’s faith and proved his point when he fled the pocket and linked up with receiver Justin Mello for a 57-yard touchdown. In the second quarter, he added a 48-yard TD pass to Jimmy Giansante to help make it 20-17 at halftime.
“Sean did a great job of keeping plays alive,” McDonnell said.
And he helped UNH, which is in the postseason for the 10th straight year, win two games in one playoff trip for the first time in school history.
The program that nurtured Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly, a UNH alum and former offensive coordinator, is adept at devising ways to move the ball.
On Nov. 23 in their first meeting with Maine, the Wildcats ran a fake punt that led to an opening score in a 24-3 victory, and they pulled out another trick last week. Running back Nico Steriti took five direct snaps — running it twice, handing off to Goldrich twice and lofting a throw sure to give pause in SLU’s film study.
On third-and-2 at the Maine 27, Goldrich was under center — a break from the norm in the UNH spread — but the ball was snapped between his legs to Steriti. The running back hesitated a moment before throwing a completion to the Black Bears’ 3-yard line, setting up a score.
“We just ask ourselves how we can best take advantage of their aggressiveness and take advantage of the situation,” McDonnell said. “Our kids buy into it and enjoy it. At practice, it makes it a little bit more exciting. But at the same time, it still comes down to blocking, tackling and finishing drives.”
And there likely won’t be hesitation to do it again Saturday in Hammond.
“We know,” Goldrich said, “we have an opportunity to do something the program has never done before.”