The University of New Hampshire Wildcats are no strangers to the FCS playoff race. They have the country’s longest active playoff streak at seven straight years, and that should extend to eight this season. With seven wins against Division 1 teams already, the Wildcats have seemingly locked up an at-large bid to the playoffs.
Their opponents this Saturday, though, are newer to FCS postseason play. Towson University has experienced a monumental turnaround this season; after winning six games total the previous three seasons, Towson has already reached seven wins in 2011. Towson’s resume is also strong enough to secure an at-large bid with two games remaining.
With both teams entering this weekend atop the CAA at 7-2 (5-1 in-conference), the outcome of their matchup directly impacts the regular season CAA championship. Last week Towson defeated Maine, the third conference team with a 7-2 (5-1) record; a win over New Hampshire would give the Tigers the head-to-head tie-breaker over both the Wildcats and the Black Bears. Should UNH win Saturday, though, it would face Maine in the season finale for the CAA title.
While the teams have experienced similar success, the style of the teams’ play could not differ more. New Hampshire’s quick-strike offense has the team second in the CAA in scoring offense at 33.0 points per game. Towson itself scores 32.9 points per contest courtesy of its dominant rushing attack. The different styles are underscored in their average time of possession: Towson leads the conference at 32:08 while UNH is last at 26:28. The teams’ offenses are reviewed below.
The Wildcats are led by quarterback Kevin Decker, the focus of a feature article by the Zone earlier this year. The senior leads the CAA in passing yards (2,480), passing efficiency (159.5) and total offense per game (316 yards). He has also added seven rushing touchdowns to complement his league-best 16 touchdown passes. Decker’s favorite targets have been junior Joey Orlando (44 receptions for 563 yards and three touchdowns) and freshman R.J. Harris (37 catches, 534 yards and five TD’s).
An underrated key to the offense’s success has been the consistency of the offensive line. Three players have started all nine games at the same positions – left tackle Seamus O’Neill, center Mike Coccia and right guard Ricky Archer. A fourth player, left guard Chris Zarkoskie, has started all but one game. The line has done its part to protect Decker and open holes for Dontra Peters, who is ninth in the CAA with almost 60 rushing yards per game.
Towson has been one of the biggest surprises of the college football season, and the turnaround has been led by a freshman. Running back Terrance West has exploded on the scene with 929 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns through nine games. While West has been the leading force behind Towson’s CAA-leading 238 rushing yards per game, five separate Tigers have averaged at least 37 rushing yards per game.
The Tigers have also had phenomenal consistency with its starting offensive line, as four players have started all nine games to date – left tackle Eric Pike, center Doug Shaw, right guard Charles Johnson and right tackle Henry Glackin. The line paved the way for 350 rushing yards in a key conference matchup last week against Maine. At quarterback is Grant Enders, a sophomore in his first season with the Tigers. The signal-caller is third in the conference in passer rating (145.4) with ten touchdowns against seven interceptions, and is himself a viable rushing threat.
While the offenses are among the best in the CAA, the defenses could be the deciding factor in the
game. Although neither defense is dominant, there are playmakers on both sides. Hard-hitting safety Jordan Dangerfield and linebacker Danzel White lead the Tigers with 65 and 61 tackles, respectively, despite missing two games apiece. New Hampshire is led by a pair of 2010 Buchanan Award Finalists – defensive end Brian McNally (tied for second in the CAA with 6.5 sacks) and linebacker Matt Evans (CAA leader with 123 tackles).
The two teams enter the game Saturday looking to establish themselves as the superior CAA team in 2011. The Wildcats’ experience in important November games may be negated by a raucous crowd at Johnny Unitas Stadium. While both seven-win teams are fairly secure with their current playoff positions, there is more on the line than just reaching the playoffs – a probable bye week to open the playoffs that might accompany the coveted CAA crown.