(STATS) - Despite remaining quite competitive without Sean Goldrich, New Hampshire's chances of defending the CAA Football title might have been in trouble if its senior quarterback didn't return soon.
Getting him back in time for the biggest game of the season to date is certainly a bonus.
One of the best offensive performers in school history takes on CAA Football's top-scoring defense - and the conference's only team to defeat Goldrich as a starter - when the 19th-ranked Wildcats visit No. 24 William & Mary on Saturday.
Granted, New Hampshire (3-2, 1-1) had no trouble with the Tribe last year with Goldrich sidelined by a sprained MCL, winning 32-3 in a showdown of teams ranked in the top 10. However, that game wasn't in Williamsburg, Virginia, where the Wildcats have won only once in 10 all-time visits and have lost six straight since 1998.
The most recent of those defeats was a 17-0 loss in 2013, the only time they've been shutout since 1995 (William & Mary also had that one). That remains the only blemish on Goldrich's 11-1 career starting record in CAA games, going 12 of 17 for 106 yards with an interception as he split time with Andy Vailas. It was Vailas who stepped in to throw for three TDs to lead last year's win over the Tribe.
It has been Adam Riese who has competently taken over while Goldrich has missed the past three games with a shoulder injury, leading the Wildcats to back-to-back wins, but he's not the same kind of dual threat. Coach Sean McDonnell said this week he expects the school's fifth all-time leading passer and active leading rusher to play Saturday.
"He's the leader of our offense. It'll be huge to get him back in the game for a calming effect," McDonnell said. "You're playing the No. 1 scoring defense in the CAA. You're talking about one of the best defenses that we've seen this year. It'll be good to have him back there making the checks, throwing the ball, putting us in position to give us an opportunity to win."
The Tribe (3-2, 1-1) are surrendering 16.4 points per game, tied for 11th-best in the FCS, and rank second in CAA Football in total defense (320.0 ypg) following last Saturday's 38-16 road win over a ranked Villanova squad. Two weeks earlier, they shut out a Stony Brook team which had dominated New Hampshire in a 31-6 win.
"This is a huge test, a big target game for us," McDonnell said. "This is a really good football team. You sit there and watch them beat up on a Stony Brook team that kicked our tail... and then go into Villanova and put the game away late in the second half the way they did, very impressive."
Keying those victories was running back Kendell Anderson, who has posted three straight 100-yard games. He ran for 191 and two touchdowns against Stony Brook and had 149 with three scores versus Villanova.
Anderson has stepped up with Mikal Abdul-Saboor hampered by an ankle injury. Abdul-Saboor, second in the CAA last year with 1,266 rushing yards, did return last week after missing one game but was limited to 47 yards on 12 carries.
"He runs very hard, he's a very aggressive runner," coach Jimmy Laycock said of Anderson, third in the CAA with 531 rushing yards. "He doesn't wanna go down. He fights for every yard he can get. He's certainly shown he's got that speed, too, when he breaks into the secondary."
Anderson and Abdul-Saboor take on an improving New Hampshire defense which is No. 3 in the CAA in points allowed (22.0 per game). Additionally, the Wildcats are tied for fifth in the FCS with 20 sacks and have forced 10 turnovers over the past three games.
"They're really playing very well right now, their defense is dominating," Laycock said. "They're doing a great job there and they've seemed to hit their rhythm on offense, too. They handled us real well up there last year, and it looks to be another very good team for New Hampshire."
A capsule look at Saturday's other CAA games (all times Eastern):
Richmond (4-1, 2-0) at Rhode Island (1-5, 1-2), noon
Could a potential trap game be awaiting the 13th-ranked Spiders in advance of next weekend's showdown with No. 5 James Madison? Among the CAA's punching bags in recent years, Rhode Island showed it's no longer a pushover in last Saturday's 20-0 triumph over Delaware. And there was nothing fluky about the Rams' first shutout win since 2006. URI held a Blue Hen offense that rushed for 347 yards against William & Mary the previous week to 19 in the second half and recorded three interceptions, one of which freshman linebacker Tez Wilson returned 25 yards for a touchdown. On offense, running back Harold Cooper surpassed 100 yards for a second straight week with a career-high 123.
"I think it was a logical step that I knew that would happen at some point in time," Rams' second-year coach Jim Fleming said. "I felt you had a team that walked out of there with an expectation to win rather than hope to win, which is a critical component to getting things flipped around."
The win was just the Rams' second in their last 14 league games, but they dealt Richmond a 12-10 defeat in the Spiders' last visit to Kingston in 2013. Richmond cruised to a 37-0 home victory in last season's meeting and enters Saturday's clash having won four straight following last week's 27-14 decision over Elon. Running backs Seth Fisher and Jacobi Green each topped the 100-yard mark against the Phoenix, the first Spider duo to do so in the same game since future NFL players Tim Hightower and Josh Vaughan in 2007.
James Madison (6-0, 3-0) at Elon (2-4, 1-2), 3 p.m.
No team has come close to slowing down the Vad Lee-led Dukes offense, and Elon should be no different. Lee matched a school record with five touchdown passes in last week's 51-30 win at Towson, finishing 24 of 32 for 278 yards for fifth-ranked JMU. He's the FCS leader in total offense with 2,322 yards, including a team-leading 624 on the ground, and ranks among the top six in TD passes (17), completion percentage (69.4) and passing yards (1,698). The Dukes rank second with 48.3 points per game - yet to be held under 38 - and the Phoenix rank toward the bottom of the conference in total defense (399.2 ypg). Elon has lost all three meetings, including a 59-27 defeat last season as Lee went 23 of 25 for 257 yards and three scores.
Villanova (2-3, 1-1) at Albany (2-4, 1-2), 3:30 p.m.
No. 25 Villanova remains in the rankings but continues to feel the effects of a slew of key injuries, most notably quarterback John Robertson's season-ending PCL tear. The CAA preseason favorites are 0-2 in Robertson's absence and play three of their next four on the road, though the Great Danes may represent a bounce-back opportunity after being outscored 76-7 in losses to Holy Cross and Maine. Albany also was handed a 48-31 setback at Villanova last season in the lone previous matchup between the schools, with Robertson accounting for five touchdowns (3 rushing, 2 passing) and the Wildcats rushing for 359 yards.
Yale at Maine (2-3, 2-1), 3:30 p.m.
Maine is the only CAA team playing a non-conference game, celebrating homecoming and wearing throwback jerseys to commemorate the school's 150th anniversary. The Black Bears won 39-7 at Albany last week as they improved to 2-0 when Daniel Collins throws for at least 200 yards - they're 0-3 when he doesn't. Yale had its 3-0 start ruined with a 35-3 loss at Dartmouth last week as Morgan Roberts threw three interceptions. The Bulldogs lead the all-time series 7-0-1 but haven't faced Maine since 1937.
Towson (2-3, 0-2) at Stony Brook (2-2, 1-2), 6 p.m.
Things haven't gone well for Stony Brook since losing top rusher Stacy Bedell to a shoulder injury, and coach Chuck Priore said this week that he was out for the season. Bedell was leading the FCS in rushing through two games as the Seawolves won both, but they've totaled 175 rushing yards and 2.4 per carry in the last two games and lost both. Towson's ground game is also hurting with reigning CAA rushing champion Darius Victor being held to 58 yards over the past two games in losses to Elon and James Madison. Victor was limited to 59 yards on 17 carries in last year's 14-3 home loss to the Seawolves.
Idle this week: Delaware (2-4, 1-2).