DURHAM, N.H. — Having battled the nation's top-ranked team toe-to-toe into the fourth quarter, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga stumbled down the stretch and fell to New Hampshire 35-30 in Friday night's FCS quarterfinal game.
With a national television audience watching on ESPN2, and 6,380 packing frigid Cowell Stadium, the Mocs led for much of the first half and regained a short-lived two-point lead to open the fourth quarter. But New Hampshire answered with a 49-yard kickoff return to the UTC 36 and needed just five plays to find the end zone and reclaim the lead for good.
The Wildcats added another touchdown minutes later to extend their home winning streak to 13 games and advance to the semifinals for a second straight year. UNH (12-1) will await the winner of today's quarterfinal between fourth seed Eastern Washington and Illinois State.
"It was a great matchup, two identical teams in a lot of ways, and they made plays when they needed to," UTC coach Russ Huesman said. "When you get into this thing you know there's only going to be one happy team when it's done."
Special teams played a significant role in helping UNH claim the win. The Wildcats forced UTC to drive the field on each possession. The Mocs never began a drive closer than their 25, including five possessions that began inside their 15 after Wildcats punts or kickoffs. Conversely, UNH began drives inside the UTC 45 four times. The Mocs also missed a 37-yard field goal in the first half and UNH recovered an onside kick to put the game away.
"I believe we lost this game in the kicking game," Huesman said. "They did an unbelievable job of flipping fields, returning kicks into our territory. They totally destroyed us today in the kicking game.
"It seemed like every time our defense was taking the field they were having to defend a short field. They were way more physical than us on special teams. We were thoroughly beaten in the kicking game and that was the big difference, no question about it."
UTC outgained the Wildcats 566-328 in total yards, but that also goes back to UNH often having a short field to cover for scores.
The lead swung back and forth in the second half, including twice in the first two minutes of the fourth quarter as both teams answered scoring drives by the other.
After Henrique Ribeiro's 27-yard field goal staked UTC to a two-point lead to begin the final period, New Hampshire countered with a kickoff return to the Mocs' 36. It took just five plays before Nico Steriti's 6-yard scoring run gave the Wildcats a 28-24 lead.
After UTC opted to punt on fourth-and-1 from its 30 early in the fourth, the next snap for UNH turned into a 61-yard TD pass from Sean Goldrich to R.J. Harris. On that play, the Wildcats ran a reverse with the ball flipped back to Goldrich, who threw short and allowed Harris to outrun the defense down the home sideline for an 11-point lead with just over 11 minutes to go.
UTC followed with another solid drive, but it ended with an interception deep in Wildcats territory. It was only the third interception Jacob Huesman threw against an FCS opponent this season, and he got the Mocs within a touchdown with a late scoring throw to Derrick Craine. But UTC could not convert the ensuing two-point try or cover the onside kick that followed.
"I thought they played better laterally in the second half, sideline to sideline, to take away what we were doing to get the ball on the perimeter," said Jacob Huesman, who finished with 335 passing yards and 93 rushing and a combined three TDs. "We weren't able to get our inside (run) game going because of their size and physicality.
Contact Stephen Hargis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6293.