FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Defense is definitely a weapon on the gridiron for the University of New Hampshire's hard-charging Wildcats.
The group is fast, physical and well-equipped to frustrate. Several teams in the Football Championship Subdivision's super-competitive Colonial Athletic Association can provide confirmation -- including the University of Massachusetts following Saturday's matchup.
At times allowing big gains, UNH's bend-but-don't-break defense stopped the conference's top offense in the only category of consequence: scoring points. The lockdown effort led to UNH's thorough 39-13 trouncing of the rival Minutemen in the first college football game at Gillette Stadium.
"It was a pretty solid effort by our team," UNH coach Sean McDonnell said. "Obviously, I was pretty pleased, particularly early in the game, with the defense. I thought they did a great job stopping the run and holding it together on our half of the field."
UNH (5-3 overall, 3-2 CAA) clearly embraced competing in this NFL venue, performing in front of 32,848 fans, the largest crowd to watch a CAA league game. There wasn't much that didn't go well for the Wildcats.
How impressive were they on the defensive side of scrimmage? They forced two of the Minutemen's three turnovers and didn't allow points until under 11 minutes remained in the game.
"I think we did a pretty good job all around," said Steve Young, a 6-foot-4, 296-pound senior defensive tackle who contributed to UNH's run-stuffing effort. "Up front, our job is basically to occupy guys, and if the ball hits in your gap, make the play. Let our linebackers run around."
McDonnell's team finished plus-3 in turnovers (3-0). His defense helped deliver key stops late in the second quarter when the Minutemen appeared poised to dig out of a 15-0 hole.
Young helped end the first threat. He sacked quarterback Kyle Havens (32-of-55, 450 yards, 2 TDs, INT) for a 6-yard loss on third-and-8. The key tackle of the signal caller, who set a school single-game passing record, set up fourth-and-long and, ultimately, a turnover-on-downs 11 yards from the end zone.
In the final minute of the first half, the Minutemen were again kept off the scoreboard. Brian McNally sacked Havens for a 7-yard loss, which moved UMass out of the red zone, leading to Caleb Violette's missed 40-yard field goal attempt.
"It was certainly a great venue and we appreciate the opportunity," said UMass coach Kevin Morris, whose team amassed 493 total yards of offense to UNH's 358. "Unfortunately, we didn't play up to the venue."
Swarming UNH sophomore linebacker Matt Evans sure did. The tackling machine who said his teammates constantly give him grief for being a "crazy Pats fan" became UNH's second straight defensive player to earn the Bill Knight Trophy as the 73rd annual game's Most Outstanding Player.
The conference's leading tackler, Evans finished with a game-high 13 total tackles, a forced fumble and an interception inside his team's 20-yard line. He and fellow sophomore linebacker Alan Buzbee (7 total tackles) were tough to shake.
"The D-line played great," Evans said. "They got a couple sacks. They were the ones that put the pressure on."
"The stops we made on third down just built our confidence," he added. "We just took it from there."
UNH improved to 27-43-3 in the series.
Stopping UMass (4-3, 2-2 CAA) in the red zone was critical. The Minutemen finished 2-for-5 in their red zone chances. The Wildcats, by comparison, were 6-for-6.
UMass tailbacks John Griffin and Jonathan Hernandez entered Saturday's showdown as the conference's second- and third-leading rushers, respectively. The duo that averaged 180 yards per game was limited to 55 yards on 19 attempts.
Overall, the Minutemen gained just 43 yards on the ground.
"They brought some key blitzes to the places we were running to," said Griffin, whose team trailed 29-0 after three quarters. "The linebackers had good speed to the ball. They stopped us before we got there."
Between the venue and the on-field beatdown, you can bet the Wildcats won't soon forget the experience.
Marc Thaler is a staff writer for the New Hampshire Union Leader & Sunday News and UnionLeader.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.