LONGSHOTS: U turns Granite State around on football
by Dave Long
The first clue something special is going on with UNH football didnít come entering the stadium on Saturday and seeing an SRO crowd. It was getting off Route 101 onto125 and immediately being stuck in a traffic jam. It continued in a stream of cars heading north, with many turning onto Route 155 for the winding ride through the foliage on the shortcut to Durham.
That traffic jam meant people were coming over from Nashua and Manchester and points in between to see the number-one-ranked Wildcats, a team coming off a phenomenal 52-49 win in Delaware. It was on Comcast the previous Saturday and it had all kinds of folks gushing. Some were like Sports Night regular Darrell (la casa) Grande, who I wouldnít have thought would be watching, and others were blue-through-and-through types like Sports Council czar Gary OíNeil. All were yakking about Santos, Ball and THE game, as for the first time in my memory football at the U has become official water cooler fodder.
Theyíve been good in the past, but now football fans, not just UNH football fans, have caught a fever that only the hockey team has periodically sent around the state. Itís the latest example of sportsí unique ability to unite a community. Even a fragmented community where a surprising number seem to feel a trip to the U is like heading to Moscow for the day. And itís not just the winning, although it was fun watching #12 Richmond go down 27-17 on Saturday to keep the U undefeated and in the hunt for an elusive national championship. But there are more reasons to head over to this weekís game with James Madison, even if you are one of those who judge a trip to Durham as being as arduous as a journey to sightsee at the Kremlin. Here are a few of them;
The Head Coach: Hard to believe Sean McDonnell was teetering on the brink of losing his job a few years ago. They always had an interesting offense, but it took him a little while to get it going on all cylinders. While he, like every coach, has the same scowl suggesting sciatic pain is running through his back win or lose, heís earned it by putting in the time. He played cornerback at the U before stints as an assistant coach at Memorial and West back in the day when he was a pain-in-the-butt defender playing hoop in the Carignan League. And then it was on to the usual path of spending years at a zillion places before magically becoming an overnight success. What I like best? The team reflects the coach Ė tough, fair and ultra-competitive. Whatís not to like?
The Offense: I hate to tell the newcomers, but the inventive offense didnít come into vogue with the arrival of Ricky Santos and David (having a) Ball. Itís been going on since I was doing the games on Channel 9 when Ryan (make my) Day was at the controls. They just ran more then because the tandem of Jerry Azumah and Dan Kreider was headed to the NFL. But they also were doing the same crazy double reverse passes, direct snap runs and much of the creative stuff you see now.
Quick Strike Capability: It wasnít on display in the grind-it-out affair with Richmond. But in the 56-14 win over Dartmouth when the green held the edge in time of possession, they scored five times in the first half and only one took longer (barely) than three minutes. Ditto in Delaware when they scored 52 points, with 31 coming in a wild second half.
Play-calling: It was exemplified Saturday when they got the ball on their four, went empty backfield and threw deep on first down. If Will Ferrell were doing his George Bush heíd probably call whatís being done by offensive coordinator and Central alum Chip Kelly (another pain-in-the-butt Carignan League defender) strategery. Theyíre not afraid of any situation and thatís fun to watch.
Ricky Santos: He sees it in slow motion and notices it a count before everyone else. His running is the big surprise. Against Northwestern he ran for three scores and it may have saved the day vs. Delaware when he ran for 113 and two more, including a make- something-out-of-nothing nine-yard scamper after taking an errant snap off his shoe tops. And, oh by the way, heís completely over 70 percent of his passes and it all started on his first snap
The Uniforms: I didnít like them at first, but thatís because Iím a ďdonít like anything new at firstĒ numbskull. The blue on blue at home is nice, but the blue pants and white jerseys on the road are cool.
The Story: It involves the two best quarterbacks to play in New England. Well, at least two of the three best. I suppose folks around as long as the aforementioned OíNeil and Grande might argue the great Sammy Baugh was better than either Doug Flutie or Tom Brady, but he did his real damage in Washington. It involves a QB who was barely recruited like Flutie and only gets to play when someone got hurt, as did Brady in the first Super Bowl season. After that the stories are the same Ė surprising success. Flutie won the Heisman and the hearts of New England forever and Brady became the NFLís best QB as the Patriots won three Super Bowl titles. For Santos and company itís been two straight playoff years, a number-one national ranking, Ball catching his 51st career TD pass to break a record held by some stiff named Jerry Rice and SRO crowds.
Hollywood wouldnít have the guts make this stuff up. A national title? I donít know just yet. Offense is nice, but defense wins in cold weather big games and Iím still not quite sure if the D is the one that gave up 49 to Delaware or the one that saved the day against Richmond. But what I do know is that either way itís worth the trip to Durham to see it all, even for those who feel like theyíre heading back to the USSR. Because this team is exciting, never out of it and the crowd has the fever, which is the best feeling in sports.
Dave Long can be heard on Sports Night with Dave Long nightly from 6 to 7 p.m. on 610 WGIR-AM