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UNH Football Comes This Close
By Allen Lessels '76

It may have been coincidental that the crew in charge of firing the cannon this fall to celebrate UNH touchdowns wore Revolutionary-style outfits, but it could not have been more fitting. The UNH football team, in season two of one of the most remarkable turn-arounds in college football, was being downright revolutionary.

All season long the Wildcats knocked off foes with a powerful offense and an opportunistic defense. Neither snow nor cold could keep them down (think Valley Forge) as they averaged nearly 50 points a game at home on their way to a 11-2 (7-1 Atlantic 10) record and a second straight appearance in the playoffs. The 2004 and 2005 seasons represented the best UNH back-to-back outings since Division I-AA began in 1978.

During the regular season, the Wildcats stumbled only once, in an Oct. 8 match-up against William and Mary; otherwise, they were relentless, beating both highly-touted teams and underdog teams and scoring, on average, twice as many points as their opponents.

In a closely watched away game against UMass—battling UNH for first place in the Atlantic 10 North Division—UNH came up big, winning 34-28. Head coach Sean McDonnell '78 later called it "an unbelievable college football game." The 'Cats ended the season the Atlantic 10 Conference champion and for the first time in school history received the No. 1 ranking in the final I-AA poll.

In 2004, UNH advanced to the NCAA I-AA quarterfinals and lost to bigger, stronger Montana. This season, playing at home in the playoffs for the first time in 11 years, UNH beat Colgate handily 55-21 and then faced Northern Iowa in the quarterfinals, losing 24-21. The difference this year was many thought the Wildcats could, and should, have won.

Like last season, quarterback Ricky Santos '08 and wide receiver David Ball '07 were a formidable combination. Against Northeastern, Santos completed an unheard of 25 of 26 passes for five touchdowns, and at UMass connected with Ball for four touchdown passes against what was billed as the best defense in the country.

But what made the '05 season more impressive to many fans was the team's improvement across the board. The previous summer, players had again stayed in Durham to lift and work out together, and perhaps more important, to bond. Working with offensive coordinator Chip Kelly '90, Santos and Ball improved, as did the rest of the offense. The defense developed under coordinator Mike Dawson and his staff and during the season shot to the top of the nation in forcing fumbles and picking off passes. Many observers thought they were a stronger, better-conditioned team, thanks in part to new strength and conditioning coach Paul Chapman, and were hitting harder and playing a more physical game.

Those who hand out awards were apparently impressed, too. Santos, Ball and tight end Jonathan Williams '05 were named Division I-AA All-American. Santos won the "Bulger" Lowe Award, given to the top offensive and defensive player in New England, and, in the closest race for first place in the history of the Walter Payton Award—presented to the best offensive player in Division I-AA—Santos placed five points behind winner Erik Meyer of Eastern Washington.

McDonnell snagged his share of awards as well: the Eddie Robinson award as the most outstanding head coach in Division I-AA college football; New England Coach of the Year, and District I Coach of the Year for the second consecutive season by the American Football Coaches Association.

The best may be yet to come.

Santos has two more years, Ball one. Thanks in part to the winning and all the attention, UNH started landing commitments from incoming recruits much earlier than usual last fall.

With attendance double what it was a few years ago, athletic director Marty Scarano was talking at season's end about building a new or at least vastly improved football facility. "I don't know if we can sustain being a top four team every year," Scarano said. "But we certainly don't want to go away."

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