After surviving in the desert (oh, come on, you KNEW that tired old cliche' was coming at some point), your Golden Gophers head home to The Bank to host the Wildcats of the University of New Hampshire, who beat Holy Cross last week. This week I exchanged some email questions with Allen Lessels, who covers UNH athletics for the New Hampshire Union Leader.
JDMill: What kind of expectations were there for UNH coming into the 2012 football season?
Allen Lessels: The expectations for UNH football have been quite high for most of the last decade since it started on a run that has led to eight straight Football Championship Subdivision appearances, which is the longest streak in the country. Specifically this year, UNH had a lot of pieces returning, but did not have a quarterback who had played in a pressure situation. And while the Wildcats have a lot of playmakers on defense, the defense overall did not put up good numbers last season, which raised some concerns.
JD: The Wildcats took care of Holy Cross (a team that makes the Gopher Hockey team shudder) by 3 TD's last week in their opening game. I won't lie, I know nothing about Holy Cross (except that Rudy Ruettiger went to school there before he graced Notre Dame with his presence), so tell us a little bit about what beating them by such a wide margin says about New Hampshire.
AL: A very nice, solid road win by New Hampshire, but hard to say what it means. For comparison's sake though, UNH needed a score in the last minutes to outlast Holy Cross, 39-32, last season at home when each team was run by a talented, veteran quarterback. This time, UNH pulled away behind a redshirt freshman and Holy Cross was playing a senior at QB who did not play at all last season.
Holy Cross was 6-5 last season and is expected to be good in the Patriot league, which does not have the overall strength of UNH's Colonial Athletic Association.
By the way, no hockey sob stories, please. UNH's last appearance in the NCAA Frozen Four came in 2003 in Buffalo. Gopher fans may recall that one: Minnesota 5, UNH 1 in the championship game. Damn, Thomas Vanek. And UNH visited Mariucci Arena for the West Regionals in 2000. Niagara 4, UNH 1. ‘Nuff said.
JD: The Gophers have lost to an FCS team at TCF Bank Stadium in each of the last two years (South Dakota in 2010, North Dakota State, who went on to win the FCS Championship, in 2011). Now that you've stopped laughing, with New Hampshire being ranked #14 in the FCS, is there a sense among the UNH fanbase that this is a winnable game?
AL: No laughing here. UNH knows a little something about FCS teams stepping up. UNH ran off consecutive wins over Rutgers (2004), Northwestern (2006), Marshall (2007), Army (2008) and Ball State (2009) before losing to Pittsburgh (2010) and Toledo (2011).
By 2010, New Hampshire fans were convinced they could beat the Vikings, but not the Patriots, on a good day. They have come down to earth a bit after the last couple of years.
[Note from JDMill: Allen, no Vikings jokes, please.]
JD: UNH put up 279 yards rushing on Holy Cross, with QB Sean Goldrich accounting for 71 of them. But three RB's for the Wildcats had at least 8 rushing attempts. Two questions. First, is Goldrich expected to be the main rushing threat for the Wildcats? Second, is RB-by-committee the gameplan for the Wildcats, or can we expect a feature back emerge against Minnesota?
AL: Goldrich is not expected to be the main running threat. Nico Steriti and Chris Setian are the first two guys on the depth chart and Jimmy Owens is the third. All run hard.
JD: Speaking of Goldrich, he accounted for just shy of 50% of the total yards that UNH racked up against Holy Cross. Here's your chance to gush about him. Tell Gopher fans how good this guy is and what we should watch out for.
Nobody knew anything about Goldrich last year when he redshirted and from the end of last season on he competed with sophomore Andy Vailas and senior James Brady for the starting job. Brady had a slight edge out of the spring but was injured coming into the fall and it became a two-man race.
In each of two scrimmages in camp, Goldrich threw two interceptions. Vailas had no turnovers.
So Goldrich gets the job and goes out and the offense has no turnovers against Holy Cross and he completes 21 of 31 with at least a couple of drops.
JD: Let's talk about New Hampshire's defense. What is their strength?
AL: Matt Evans. Matt Evans. Matt Evans. Senior linebacker who had 165 tackles last year, the second-best total in FCS, and won the Buck Buchanan Award as national defensive player of the year. Fourth in Buchanan voting as a sophomore with 156 tackles. Senior Alan Buzbee lines up alongside Evans, making linebacker the strength.
JD: Who are a couple of players Gopher fans should be aware of on the UNH defense?
AL: See above. Also defensive tackles Jared Smith, 6-3 and 292, and Matt Kaplan, 6-1 and 293, who will be among those trying to contain MarQueis Gray and the Minnesota running game.
JD: In what facet of the game is New Hampshire most vulnerable? In other words, how can the Gophers beat New Hampshire?
AL: New Hampshire defense gave up a lot of yards per game and a lot of points per game last season. The defense looked much, much better against Holy Cross, but the jury's still out on how good it really is.
JD: What one area does New Hampshire have to exploit in order to beat the Gophers?
AL: If New Hampshire can manage to slow the running game down and force Gray to pass, it would certainly be beneficial. Of course, that's probably everyone's plan and not all that easy.
JD: What is your prediction for the game? Final score?
AL: New Hampshire always plays hard and should put up a good fight. Minnesota 31, New Hampshire 17.