CARBONDALE, Ill. - During the second half yesterday, an uneasy feeling swept over New Hampshire coach Sean McDonnell.
Quarterback R.J. Toman had thrown three interceptions and missed two receivers in the end zone. One misfire bounced off the umpire and into the hands of a defender to set up a touchdown.
The offense had squandered superb field position, settling for field goals when touchdowns were there for the taking. Life was agony.
"And then you look up and see that we're winning," McDonnell said.
UNH ran counter to form and used defense, with a heavy dash of special teams, to defeat Southern Illinois, 29-20, in an opening-round game of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
UNH (10-2) will make its fifth quarterfinal appearance in the last six seasons Saturday against Northern Iowa, which beat Maine, 40-15. The sudden rise of the defense raises the possibility of going beyond this round for the first time in school history.
UNH clinched a spot in the playoffs by holding Maine to 24 points in a win Nov. 22. The Wildcats held SIU to more than 10 points below its season average. UNH has allowed 25 points or fewer in seven consecutive games, the longest such streak since McDonnell took over in 1999.
"With the way this defense is playing now, there's no telling how far we can go," said Wildcats defensive end Kevin Peters. "When we're playing like this, we can be one of the best defenses in the country."
The Wildcats stifled one of the better running backs. SIU's Larry Warner, a 5-foot-5-inch sprite with a quicksilver running style, entered averaging 106.5 yards on 18 carries per game. He finished with only 93 yards on 21 carries.
"I'd make one cut, and another guy would be right there," Warner said.
At a vital junction, SIU coach Dale Lennon showed no confidence in Warner's ability to get 2 yards.
Trailing, 26-20, with eight minutes remaining, Lennon considered going for it on fourth and 2 from the Wildcats' 49. Had Warner been running as well as usual, the decision would have been a no-brainer.
Instead, Lennon recognized the work of UNH's defense, which hounded Warner with relentless pursuit. Lennon took the cautious route and had Chris Dieker punt.
When SIU next got the ball, it trailed by two scores. The Wildcats gobbled up more than five minutes with a 71-yard drive that ended with Tom Bishop's fifth field goal.
"I know they expected to run against us," McDonnell said. "When we did a good job on Warner, we got them out of their rhythm and made them do different things. I thought they were out of kilter."
The defense started the second half with its two best stands of the game.
SIU began consecutive possessions within UNH territory, at the 41- and 45-yard lines, and did not score. The Salukis produced only one first down each time and kicker Kyle Dougherty missed from 46 and 47 yards.
"Once you get a couple of stops, your confidence grows and grows," said UNH free safety John Clements. "You start seeing the same plays over and over, and you make the tackles."
Clements had a team-high eight solo stops. He also turned loose the offensive player who has always been inside him, yearning to do things with the ball.
Clements set up the offense by returning three kickoffs for 143 yards and returning a blocked punt 26 yards for a touchdown in the decisive third quarter.