‘They’re back:’ In the turn of UNH football

That’s why they came back.

They came back for moments like the thrilling, nerve-wracking 42-41 overtime win over Maine at Alfond Stadium on Saturday, which earned the University of New Hampshire football team some serious hardware, braggart rights and a chance to practice a few more days and to play at least one more game.

For moments like the aftermath of Saturday’s instant classic, when they got to celebrate with the Brice Cowell musket on the field and later not only with the trusty firearm, but also with the Colonial Athletic Association championship trophy in the lobby of the Alfond hockey rink Soccer matchdays serve as a de facto dressing room for visiting teams.

First-year head coach Rick Santos loudly and proudly praised the team’s turnaround from a frustrating 3-8 season in 2021, which ended with eight straight losses to an 8-3 mark in 2022 before earning CAA – Inspector Joey D’Antonio introduced.

The league boss presented Santos and first-year athletics director Allison Rich with the league trophy — the first time since 2014 that the Wildcats had won a share of the league crown.

And they came back to their own dressing room in the basement of the UNH Field House for moments like Sunday’s meeting.

There they watched early Sunday afternoon and the place erupted when it became official because ESPNU said it was: The Wildcats are back in the NCAA Division I FCS tournament for the first time since 2017.

UNH plays Fordham in the first round of the FCS playoffs at 2 p.m. Saturday at Wildcat Stadium, a strong 9-2 Patriot League team that is averaging more than 50 points a game.

Tickets for the first round game are available at UNHWildcats.com/Tickets.

“It feels great,” said defensive tackle student and captain Niko Kvietkus. “That was my goal for this team after being elected captain, to get all the trophies back in the dressing room and make the playoffs. This is where we are now and we have to keep going.”

Saturday’s winner between No. 15 New Hampshire, 8-3 overall and 7-1 in the CAA, and No. 16 Fordham advances to the second round to compete on Saturday, December 12 at Holy Cross, the number 8 of the tournament to play . 3.

Yes, that’s exactly why Kvietkus and receiver Brian Espanet, offensive lineman Patrick Flynn and safety Pop Bush — the captains — chose to put a halt to the work force and come back with a goal to elevate the program back to national prominence.

Beginning in 2004, when Santos took the quarterback reins as a redshirt freshman and—led by head coach Sean McDonnell with assistance from offensive coordinator Chip Kelly—led the Wildcats to the second round of the FCS tournament for 14 straight seasons, there was no FCS Tournament played without the Wildcats.

It is the second-longest playoff appearance of all time.

A losing season in 2018 – when all four captains played their first games – ended the playoff run, followed by a 2019 season in which McDonnell was absent due to ill health and Santos as interim head coach led the team to a 6-5 record .

Then the pandemic struck. The 2020 season became a one-game campaign in Spring 2021.

In fall 2021, the Wildcats under McDonnell got off to a fast start, winning their first three games but then dropping their last eight.

McDonnell retired after the season ended and Santos took over.

Flynn and co. were determined to return and turn things around, bringing the program back to what they saw in 2017, the year they retired as true freshmen and the FCS tournament run after a few more single-game wins in South Dakota, state ended.

“It was great,” Flynn said. “There was a standard set before I came here. We had to find a way to reset the standard and I think we succeeded this year. It was amazing to be a part of. Everyone counted us out and we found a way to win the CAA. That’s great. But the job is not finished yet. We still have a lot to do.”

The Wildcats have been in playoff mode since November. They needed two wins in their last three games to reach the magic number of eight wins required to almost win an FCS bid.

They started slow in Richmond, rallied, then lost when an Ave Mary throw from second quarterback Max Brosmer fell to the ground in the end zone. Now they had to win their last two games.

They defeated Rhode Island at home the next week with a 26-yard pass from Brosmer to DJ Linkins TD with 17 seconds remaining.

Then came Maine and a wild finish in overtime.

“The last three games…” Espanet said with a smile. “I don’t know why we can’t just end a game. It has to be the best game ever.”

Fordham has all the potential of another savage.

The Rams lead the FCS overall with 612.1 yards per game and are second on offense with 50.2 points per game. The Rams finished 9-2 aggregate and were 5-1 in the Patriot League.

To spice things up a bit, Fordham head coach Joe Conlin spent seven years as an assistant defensive line coach at UNH beginning in 2004, coinciding with Santos’ first year as a quarterback.

Additionally, Fordham offense coordinator Kevin Decker, who summarizes the prolific Ram offense, was a replacement for Santos at UNH and then the 2011 CAA Offensive Player of the Year while leading the Wildcats to another playoff berth.

So yes, that’s why the captains have come back and why, Santos noted, the players are coming to Durham first and foremost: to play for championships in meaningful games in November.

The Wildcats secured a couple of titles in Maine and will begin their quest for their biggest title yet on Saturday.

Before the Wildcats picked up their trophy and musket and left Orono, Santos, in a post-game press conference, praised the work of his staff, particularly offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Brian Scott and assistant head coach and defensive coordinator Garrett Gillick – both former University of Maine players .

He cited Brosmer’s play and attitude, Dylan Laube’s explosive day and linebacker Bryce Shaw’s timely interception on Maine’s two-point conversion attempt in the final game of the day.

He was then asked to put the win, comeback season, into perspective.

“It means everything,” said Santos. “This program has been with me my whole life. I have to give credit to Sean McDonnell. To be honest, it almost brings tears to my eyes to see him go like this. As a Hall of Fame coach, I know his career didn’t end the way he wanted: a lot of it is for him, too. He was part of it. Most of these guys came here because of Coach Mac. I’m just so proud of the determination of these young men that we were able to turn it from 3-8 to 8-3.”

Santos returned to the 2018 season, which opened with a loss in Maine.

“We talked about it last night at the team meeting,” he said. “You know, in 2018, Maine was ultimately the reason for our downfall. They knocked out preseason player of the year Trevor Knight with a high ankle sprain. We didn’t play well this year, we didn’t make the playoffs and after that it’s been four, five years. We wanted to do everything right in the universe, we had to get up here, we had to beat them on their home turf and find a way to come back and get a postseason offer.

They are back.

■The Wildcats also won multiple CAA awards. Santos was named coach of the year. Laube was named to the CAA All-Conference First Team (punt returner), Second Team (running back), and Third Team (kick returner). Sophomore defense ends Dyla Ruiz and Josiah Silver joined Laube as first team selections. Captains Flynn (second team offensive line) and Bush (third team safety) were also all-conference picks.