UMass falls to UNH in Colonial Clash

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The Minutemen will be back here again next season. The Wildcats won’t.

But while UMass will begin playing all its home games at Gillette Stadium next season, for the second straight year it was UNH that seemed right at home in Foxboro.

The guests from the Granite State certainly left an impression, winning the second -- and perhaps last -- “Colonial Clash” 27-21 on Saturday.

UNH won the toss, elected to receive and used a long return on the opening kickoff and a no-huddle offense to score on its opening drive. UMass quarterback Kellen Pagel led the Minutemen down the field on their opening drive, looking to answer, but a poor decision (throwing into double coverage in the end zone) resulted in an interception, setting the tone for the afternoon.

“The difference in the game in the end was what happened in the beginning,” UMass coach Kevin Morris said. “They came out strong with a great kick return and were able to punch it in for a score. And we’re playing from behind for the rest of the ballgame and weren’t able to overcome our own mistakes and penalties.

“Certainly looking forward to moving up and moving on after this ballgame.”

UMass will begin Football Bowl Subdivision play next season. The Minutemen’s first game as an FBS team comes Aug. 30, 2012, against UConn.

The nonconference schedule will also include games at Michigan and Vanderbilt, and against Indiana at Gillette. UMass will play a full Mid-American Conference slate in 2012, but won’t be eligible for the MAC championship or bowl play until 2013.

Not that the Minutemen figure to be contenders for either right away. At least they won’t be if they play the way they did against the Wildcats.

Trailing 18-12 to begin the third quarter, UMass had the ball and appeared to get the break it needed when tailback Jonathan Hernandez took the ball around the right end and streaked 45 yards into the end zone. Unfortunately for the Minutemen, the play was only possible because wide receiver Jesse Julmiste had held his defender on the edge, allowing Hernandez to tiptoe by.

After the flag, the UMass drive fizzled out. Later in the quarter, UNH used big runs by Dontra Peters and Nico Steriti to get in position for Kevin Decker to throw a 23-yard touchdown pass to Sean Cullen. That stretched the lead to 24-12 and, for all intents and purposes, put the game out of reach.

“Can’t say enough about what it means for our school and our program to have the opportunity to play in a setting like this,” UNH coach Sean McDonnell said. “Having the opportunity to play UMass, and not knowing if we’re ever gonna have another one against them, it meant a lot to us to win this football game.

“I thought we played a pretty clean game. We caused some turnovers, which was good.”

The Minutemen certainly did not play a clean game. In addition to Pagel’s interception, UMass also had two fumbles (losing one) and four penalties for 30 yards.

So though UMass had 399 yards of total offense to UNH’s 335, much of that is due to the fact Pagel had to throw 42 times in an attempt to bring the Minutemen back. He finished with 249 yards passing on 25 completions, and added a rushing touchdown late.

Morris & Co. would’ve preferred to pile up the yardage on the ground with Hernandez, but the UNH defense did a solid job containing the senior. Hernandez carried the ball 29 times but totaled only 89 yards (a 3.08 yard average) and a score.

“That was a huge emphasis this entire week,” UNH linebacker Matt Evans said. “No. 1 priority is to stop the run. I don’t know what the statistics were, but I think we did pretty well. We played very hard, played disciplined and kept the ball in front of us.”

And so the Wildcats headed home with another victory over UMass, their traditional Colonial Athletic Association rival, satisfied with the experience and the result. There were no such feelings among the UMass contingent.

Asked what it will mean for the program to play its home games in Gillette going forward, Morris was disappointed about Saturday's loss but seemed excited for the future.

“They’re gonna work in the locker room in there now, they’re gonna put some UMass stuff down in there and make it a true home locker room for us,” he said. “I think that’ll be great for our guys, make it truly feel like our home field as we come down from Amherst to play our home games for the next few years here. There’s no better venue in the country to play NFL football in, obviously college football. We are very excited that it will be our home field.”

Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.