HARRISONBURG — The last place New Hampshire played a football game was at Bridgeforth Stadium.
This past December, James Madison throttled the Wildcats 55-22 in the second round of the FCS playoffs in the teams’ second meeting in eight weeks. JMU won at New Hampshire 42-39 in a Week 7 Colonial Athletic Association bout during the regular season.
“It left a sour taste in my mouth walking out of Harrisonburg last year because I know we were better than what we showed in the last game,” longtime UNH coach Sean McDonnell said. “But then watching [JMU] through the playoffs, and that dismantling of Sam Houston State, you realize just how good of a football team that they really were.”
The Dukes and Wildcats meet again on Oct. 28 this season when McDonnell and company return to Harrisonburg for the teams’ third clash in 13 months.
Since the playoff showdown, a good bit has changed for New Hampshire.
Defensively, McDonnell has focused on replacing All-American cornerback Casey DeAndrade, and all three starting linebackers from the 2016 season.
On offense, the Wildcats used the spring to start evaluating ways to retool their running attack as last year’s leading rusher Dalton Crossan, who scored four touchdowns in two games against JMU in 2016, has graduated. The offense also lost three starting linemen to graduation.
“We got to replace three seniors that were redshirt senior offensive linemen for us. We were very similar to JMU in that way,” McDonnell said. “They were the glue of the offense and the guys that set the tone for everything.
“That’s probably the key to our offense.”
At running back, New Hampshire is likely to go to a by-committee approach, McDonnell said. Senior Donald Goodrich, sophomore Evan Gray and freshman DeUnte Chatman will all get touches.
With inexperienced offensive linemen and running backs, New Hampshire will put more responsibility on junior quarterback Trevor Knight.
Knight threw for 1,714 yards and 14 touchdowns, and rushed for 396 yards and four touchdowns last fall.
“He’s got to grow,” McDonnell said of Knight. “And I think he did a nice job this spring. The last three practices, I thought he was really exceptional.
“The big thing is keeping his legs healthy so he can scramble out and do some things.”
While the offense will adapt with new personnel, McDonnell said he hopes the defense can build off of what it did last season.
New Hampshire allowed three touchdowns or fewer in eight of 13 games and had the fourth-best rushing defense (137.7 rushing yards allowed per game) in the CAA last season.
“The next step is to sustain it and then to get things going in the coverage to help develop the defense as we go along,” McDonnell said.
Despite having DeAndrade, New Hampshire had the worst passing defense (239.8 passing yards allowed per game) in the CAA in 2016. McDonnell said he wants that to change.
Senior Marquis Carr, sophomore Prince Smith, sophomore Isiah Perkins and freshman Alonzo Addae all will compete for playing time at cornerback during August training camp.
The Wildcats open their season at home with archrival Maine on Aug. 31, something McDonnell said he both likes and dislikes. UNH beat Maine in the regular-season finale last year to earn a spot in the postseason. The next week, New Hampshire travels to Statesboro, Ga., for a meeting with FBS Georgia Southern.
“You look at all the other conferences and there’s a top-heavy feel to those conferences,” McDonnell said. “I always say, ‘Do you really want to play Maine? Do you really want to play Delaware?’ C’mon. Those are good football teams from top to bottom.
“As far as our league, with the way JMU has played the last couple of years, starting with Mickey [Matthews] and then [Everett] Withers and I think Mike [Houston] has brought something to that program that is just a little different — the toughness on defense, the great special teams play. I think it’s the bar that we’re all trying to rise to.”