DURHAM -- The pre-game focus for this year's University of New Hampshire vs. Massachusetts football game has understandably been on the venue. For the first time ever, Gillette Stadium will host a college football game, and the Patriots' brass chose this long-standing New England rivalry.
But once 3:30 p.m. rolls around and all the alumni functions, tailgating and honorary coin-flipping is over, it will boil down to two Colonial Athletic Association teams that need a win and can ill afford another conference loss.
Or, as UNH senior quarterback R.J. Toman said, "You could put us on a grass field in the middle of nowhere and it'll be a big game. It's UNH against UMass."
A crowd of more than 25,000 is expected according to UNH athletic department officials. Tickets are available via Ticketmaster (www.ticketmaster.com). The game can also be seen on Comcast SportsNet.
Coming off its 28-14 upset win at James Madison, UNH (4-3, 2-2 in the CAA) jumped six spots in both of the national polls and is now ranked ninth in the coaches' poll and 10th in The Sports Network top 25. Conversely, the Minutemen (4-2, 2-1) were beaten 11-10 at home by Richmond, with the Spiders scoring the winning touchdown in the final seconds.
"Throw that game out the window," UNH head coach Sean McDonnell said. "You watch the tape of the William & Mary game (27-23 UMass win), watch the tape of the Michigan game (a narrow 42-37 loss at The Big House), watch them against Holy Cross, and this is a UMass football team. They've got a big, strong offensive line, two outstanding running backs and a quarterback making plays."
Even with its sub-par effort against Richmond, UMass is leading the CAA in offense, averaging 408.8 yards per game. The rushing tandem of John Griffin (96.8 ypg) and Jonathan Hernandez (83.3 ypg) "are the best two backs in tandem that we're going to see in this league," McDonnell said.
Behind quarterback Kyle Havens, UMass also has an effective passing game.
"Yeah, they've tried to take their shots down the field (but) it starts with the run," said UNH senior cornerback Dino Vasso, who has five interceptions this year and is three shy of the UNH record of 20 for a career.
UNH's defense has been especially stout in its last two games, shutting out Richmond and blanking JMU in the second half.
"The big key right now is that (UNH) came off league loses and they've bounced back with league wins and they really have the ship righted," UMass head coach Kevin Morris said. "They're playing very inspired defense."
UNH linebacker Matt Evans, coming off his award-winning effort at JMU (Gold Helmet, CAA Co-Defensive Player, ECAC Defensive Player), is leading the Wildcats and the conference with 80 tackles. At JMU, he put the Wildcats on the board in the opening minutes with a fumble return for a touchdown. The week before it was John Greer returning an interception for a score early in the first quarter. UNH's plus-7 turnover margin is second in the conference.
UMass is minus-3 in turnovers.
"You have to limit turnovers. You look at our losses on the road. At Rhode Island, I throw an interception and give them momentum, then the strip-sack and a lucky bounce and, credit, to them, they return it for a score," Toman said. "At Maine, I throw three interceptions. Maybe in other conferences good teams can get away with that but in the CAA you can't do that. Every team is too good for that."
One area where UNH has shown modest improvement is with its running game. That trend could continue, in part because the Minutemen are ranked ninth in the 10-team league in rush defense (though Michigan's 284-yard effort does skew the stats).
"To have a balanced attack is huge," Toman said, adding that if UNH can run the ball with effectiveness, especially on first down, "there are so many more things in the playbook. Play-action becomes big and keeps the defense on its heels."
Saturday's game is ripe with playoff implications. UNH has made six straight playoff appearances. After a bye week, the Wildcats will have games against No. 4 William & Mary and at No. 6 Villanova, then finish hosting Towson.
"I think a seven-win team in this league, that has the right wins, and is hot down the stretch is a team that should have great consideration going into the playoffs, especially with our teams' records against other conferences," McDonnell said.
To get to seven wins, UNH will need to win three of its final four games. Taking down UMass -- at Gillette Stadium no less -- would be a great start.
NOTES: The much-awaited return of tight end Chris Jeannot (concussion) is possible this week as he returned to full-contact practices. John Murray is also looking good to add depth along the defensive line. Defensive back and kick returner Tyler Sargent is out for the season after a serious knee injury at JMU. ... Toman moved up to third on the all-time UNH completion chart, passing both Mike Granieri and Bob Jean with his 22-of-40, 248-yard effort at JMU. Toman is 74 completions behind No. 2 Ryan Day. ... Senior safety Hugo Souza needs 13 tackles to move into sixth on UNH's all-time tackles list.