A low scoring, struggle-for-touchdowns Saturday is exactly how New Hampshire wants this one to play out.
“I’d love that,” Wildcats safety Evan Horn said. “As a defensive player, you can’t ask for more.”
Horn, of course, said he’s rooting for New Hampshire’s offense to score as many points and as often as possible this Saturday when the Wildcats visit James Madison for a 3:30 p.m. kickoff at Bridgeforth Stadium. But through two months of the season that hasn’t been the Wildcats’ recipe for success.
The UNH defense has held its opponents to 20 points or fewer in six of its eight games so far while the offense has failed to crack a 30-point performance in any game this year.
“You look at their scores,” JMU coach Curt Cignetti said. “They’ve won a lot of close games, 16-10, 17-14 and scores of that nature.”
The Wildcats lean on their defense, which has become one of the best in FCS limiting foes to 16.6 points per game, and more specifically their seasoned secondary geared on creating problems for opposing quarterbacks.
UNH’s 13 interceptions are the fourth most nationally and the most in the Colonial Athletic Association.
Horn, a junior, has four picks to lead the team and two came this past Saturday in the Wildcats’ come-from-behind win over Villanova. Another came when he registered a 50-yard interception return for a touchdown against Elon quarterback Davis Cheek last month.
Both UNH senior cornerback Prince Smith Jr., and senior safety Pop Lacey have two interceptions apiece – though Lacey missed the last three games due to a foot injury. Add in senior cornerback Isaiah Perkins, who has one interception this year, and those four have made up the Wildcats’ defensive backfield for the last three seasons.
They have combined for 15 pass breakups.
“First and foremost it starts with our defensive coordinator, John Lyons,” Wildcats interim coach Ricky Santos said. Lyons, the former coach at Dartmouth, is in his ninth year as defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach for New Hampshire.
“He’s been around this program for a long time,” Santos said. “And he’s been successful everywhere he’s been, so I think he does a good job putting our guys in the right position and then we have some veterans back there that understand that the moment is not too big for them. They’ve played a lot of meaningful football here, so I think those things play into it.”
Santos said him, Lyons and the rest of the defensive staff put stress on their defensive backs in practice repeatedly that they handle well in drills, which makes for an easy transition to Saturdays.
“We do turnover circuits every day,” Santos said. “We do a lot of competitive one-on-one blitz drills where we’re forcing them to play coverage and understand what’s going on, so I think we do a good job as coaches of putting them in situations, and then they’re also guys that have been in the moments that can make plays.”
Horn said since training camp started in August, he’s sensed the staff has given more responsibilities to him, Lacey, Perkins and Smith Jr.
“They wanted to make things more simple for the linebackers,” Horn said. “The most veteran guy we have is [linebacker] Mike Balsamo. He’s our senior captain and leader, but they wanted to make it simple for guys like [freshman linebacker] Oleh Manzyk when he came in, so he could get up to speed with the defense. Obviously, in high school playing defense is way different than college, so he was just learning, learning and learning and he’s still learning now, but he’s starting to grasp things better and with our help in the secondary, if we see something wrong we can help him out and tell him what to do.
“We’ve seen most of the offenses in the CAA, so it’s big time that it’s been the same four guys back there for the last three years at UNH.”
Cignetti said Horn and the New Hampshire defensive backs along with Lyons’ smarts make it difficult to move the football and protect it against the Wildcats.
“They have a changed a little bit schematically from what they’ve done in the past,” Cignetti said, “in terms of some new blitzes and coverages.
“They’ve got a veteran secondary, so I think they feel they can do a lot more. They’re keeping you off balance a lot with the calls, but the thing about New Hampshire is that they’re very disciplined. Guys are in the right gaps. They fit the gaps right. They do a good job with their underneath coverage. They do a nice job with their pass rush. They got the blitzes to keep you off balance. They’re a tremendous challenge.”