New Hampshire is going to have its hands full this week. The Wildcats snuck into the playoffs despite getting blanked by lowly Albany in the last week of the regular season and got a favorable first-round matchup. The Wildcats easily shut down Central Connecticut State’s offense and forced three turnovers out of the Blue Devils in a 14-0 victory.
This week presents a much tougher challenge, though, as the Wildcats go on the road to face Central Arkansas. The Bears are no longer just the school with the funky field after winning the Southland Conference and going 10-0 against FCS opponents this season. The Bears were only tested twice all year. In Week 5, they knocked off Sam Houston State 41-30 thanks to some big plays from Hayden Hildebrand. Two weeks later they squeaked past Stephen F. Austin 24-20. They defeated every other FCS opponent by at least 20 points and looked very impressive all year.
FCS Second Round Betting Odds
New Hampshire +14
Central Arkansas -14
Keep an Eye On…
Hildebrand is one of the finalists for the Walter Payton Award, and the three-year starter is putting up his best numbers as a senior this season. He led the Bears to the postseason last year and picked up a win against Illinois State in the first round before losing to Eastern Washington on the road. Hildebrand seems to have really learned from that experience as his stats have gone through the roof after taking a dip as a junior.
He averaged 10.3 yards per pass this season and was very efficient with the ball. Hildebrand completed over two-thirds of his passes and only tossed seven interceptions, three of those coming in his one bad performance against Stephen F. Austin.
His best game came against one of the best defenses in the country. Hildebrand torched a McNeese State team that had shut down opponents all season, hitting bomb after bomb against this secondary. He averaged almost 21 yards per completion in that game and threw four touchdowns in a 47-17 rout.
It will be up to Hildebrand to beat the Wildcats defense. New Hampshire boasts one of the stingiest run defenses in the country, but the secondary is susceptible despite playing a 4-2-5 scheme in most instances. The Wildcats give up 224.7 yards per game through the air. Hildebrand has a great offensive line that provides him plenty of time—he has only been sacked six times—so everything will be on his shoulders.
New Hampshire has to rely on its defense to win games because the offense hasn’t been too productive this season. The Wildcats have really struggled on that end as of late, being shut out by both Albany and James Madison and managing just 14 points against CCSU and 16 points against Elon.
The run game is almost non-existent for New Hampshire. The Wildcats are averaging 2.8 yards per carry and it’s hard to imagine them having much success against a Central Arkansas front that has been fantastic at stopping the run all season.
That puts the onus on quarterback Trevor Knight to get the job done. Knight has had a great season all things considered. He has not been getting great protection from his offensive line and has already been sacked 44 times on the year. Despite being a human piñata, he has thrown for over 3,000 yards and has been able to use a short passing game to replace the lack of a rushing attack.
The Wildcats’ two defensive tackles are they keys to their unit. Rick Holt and Ryan Sosnak are fantastic at eating up blockers and allowing the linebackers to make plays. That has allowed this defense to continue to play the 4-2-5 and just roll a safety or two into the box if needed.
I don’t expect Central Arkansas to make more than a token effort to run the football. Hildebrand is a solid quarterback and can take matters into his own hands. Look for the Bears to hit some big plays on this defense and put New Hampshire in a bad position early. Things will snowball from there and Central Arkansas will move on to the quarterfinals with a comfortable victory.
Pick: Central Arkansas -14