DURHAM - The University of New Hampshire football team gives up the home field advantage that is Cowell Stadium -- "The Dungeon" some players call it -- to play Massachusetts in opulent Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., on Saturday.
That's OK, said Sean Jellison, the senior running back and captain from Amherst and Souhegan High School.
"It is kind of a bummer," Jellison said. "But we hear there's going to be a big UNH crowd down there, probably the biggest traveling crowd we've ever had. At least that's the rumor."
A crowd of at least 25,000 and maybe up to 30,000 is expected for the hugely important Colonial Athletic Association rivalry game, said Steve Metcalf, the UNH deputy athletics director who helped set the contest up.
He didn't have a breakdown of how ticket sales have gone so far.
"But I think it will be very close," Metcalf said. "They have a larger campus, more students and more alumni, way more alumni in Massachusetts. But our ticket sales have been good, too."
UNH sold out its allotment of 2,000 student tickets and 500 more were in the overnight mail to be sold on Thursday, Metcalf said.
There's plenty on the line in the game.
The Wildcats, coming off a 28-14 win at James Madison, are 4-3 overall and 2-2 in the CAA and ranked No. 10 in the Sports Network/Fathead.com poll.
UMass is at 4-2 and 2-1 and last week lost to Richmond, 11-10, at home. The Minutemen are ranked No. 12.
Both teams are vying for spots in the NCAA playoffs and have a tough road ahead.
The Wildcats are off next Saturday and then return to play William & Mary on the road, at Villanova and Towson at home.
UMass still has to play James Madison, Maine, Delaware and Rhode Island.
First, these two old rivals knock heads in what is being billed the "Colonial Clash." It's actually the first installment of a two-game series. Next October, they meet again at Gillette and that one will be a UMass home game.
Yeah, UNH coach Sean McDonnell said, it is tough to pass up playing a game in Durham.
"Would I like to be playing out here in Cowell Stadium?" he said. "Yeah, I'd love to be playing out there. But I also understand this is a great opportunity for us to showcase New England football in a time where I think it needs it the most at our level, when you have teams that are talking about struggling and have teams that have dropped out like Northeastern and BU and stuff like that."
The game will be great for exposure overall and should help in recruiting, he said.
"It's a win-win situation and we're all looking forward to it, to be honest with you," McDonnell said.
Confident 'Cats await 'next one'
They face rivals at Gillette Stadium
Concern arrived in Durham after the Wildcats dropped their first two conference games against supposedly weaker foes Rhode Island and Maine. Reaching the playoffs for a seventh straight season felt like a long shot. Simply finishing .500 in the murderously competitive Colonial Athletic Association seemed like a better goal for New Hampshire.
But the 'Cats regained some edge two weeks ago with a 17-0 decision against then-No. 11 Richmond. They backed it up last week with their sharpest game of the season, a 28-14 comeback win at then-No. 7 James Madison, and now concern has been replaced by the kind of belief UNH has grown accustomed to over the last six years.
"When you lose those games, it shakes your confidence a little bit," Coach Sean McDonnell said. "But coming back and beating a very good Richmond team at homecoming gave us a little life and then obviously going down to JMU and playing a game that we finished in the second half after being behind and finding a way to win on the road, it just reinforced to the kids that we're okay, we're okay, and let's go play the next one."
The next one is always the biggest one in McDonnell's mind, but this particular next one is oversized all over the place. The 4-3 Wildcats, who moved from No. 15 to No. 10 this week, will face No. 12 Massachusetts (4-2) Saturday at 3:30 in the mecca of New England football - Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.
"It's an unbelievable thing that the Patriots have done and Mr. Kraft and the people down there to give New England football an opportunity to showcase two of its finest programs," McDonnell said. "You're going to play one of your arch rivals in a pro stadium with a game that means something, so what more can you ask for? Our kids are excited and so is everybody here, coaches and everybody else."
The feeling is mutual in Massachusetts, where the Minutemen are eager to forget last week's 11-10 loss to Richmond. UMass committed three turnovers, gave up a safety, failed to find the game-clinching touchdown despite having a first-and-goal from the 2 at the end of the fourth and allowed Richmond's true freshman quarterback Montel White to complete his first passes of the day and lead the Spiders to the game-winning touchdown with just nine seconds left to play.
"Any time you lose the way we did, I think you get the kids' attention right away. That (kind of loss) can't happen. That never should happen," said UMass Coach Kevin Morris, whose team dropped from No. 8 to No. 12 this week. "No matter who we were playing this week, the kids' attention was gotten, but then you throw in UNH, you throw in Gillette Stadium and there's no question nobody's sleeping through this one."
McDonnell, in particular, is looking forward to seeing if the Wildcat offense can build off its second-half performance last week against James Madison. Defense has paced UNH this season, and it was outstanding again against the Dukes, but the offense stole the fourth-quarter show with two eight-play touchdown drives of 64 and 78 yards against a JMU defense that's ranked third in the nation in points allowed at 13.3 per game.
McDonnell agreed last week's second half was the best his offense looked all year, "against a good team," but the coach wasn't ready to go much further.
"I'll know more when we play next week if we're growing up or if we are where we need to be," McDonnell said. "But I know we got better as the game went on. I thought we blocked a little better, ran a little better and we secured the football."
Playoff picture resized
Eight was always the magic number for the FCS playoffs, the minimum number of wins teams needed to be considered for the postseason. There have been exceptions, including the 2007 Wildcats who were 7-4 but earned the invite anyway, but they are rare.