By Matt Noonan
Every season, there are a handful of New England college football teams that surprise me.
Sure, there are the favorites, along with squads many expect to contend for a conference crown – perhaps a national championship? – but with another season of college football slowly winding down, I thought I would highlight five teams that exceeded my preseason expectations.
Assumption University: The Greyhounds enjoyed one of their better seasons this fall, winning eight games to go with their first Northeast-10 Conference crown in five years. Additionally, Assumption advanced to the NCAA Division II playoffs where their run toward a national title concluded in the opening round with a 17-14 setback to Slippery Rocky.
Sure, losing in the first round is not an ideal way to conclude a season, but perhaps this year’s effort is a sign of more exciting things to come for coach Andy McKenzie’s squad.
McKenzie and his staff deserve credit for a successful season after posting a 5-5 record last fall, including a 5-3 record against NE10 foes. The fifth-year coach was tabbed the NE10 Coach of the Year last Wednesday while three members of the Assumption defense earned First-Team All-Conference honors, including linebacker Lorenzo Valencia.
Plymouth State: The last time the Panthers won nine games, they were sharing the Massachusetts State Collegiate Athletic Conference (MASCAC) crown with Framingham State.
Plymouth State clinched its ninth win this past weekend, thanks to a come-from-behind 21-20 win over Husson University in the New England Bowl.
Halfbacks Manny Sanchez and Willie Lombard were a big reason why the Panthers were in the mix for a conference crown as the duo combined for 20 rushing touchdowns and 1,343 rushing yards.
Jake Donahue led the receiving core with 38 catches for 562 yards and six touchdowns while Evan Wilson paced the defense with 80.0 total tackles, including 49 solo stops and a team-best nine tackles for a loss of 25 yards.
21 seniors made-up this year’s Plymouth State squad, along with six graduate students. It is possible we could see a few of these student-athletes return next season – the NCAA granted student-athletes an extra year of eligibility during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tufts University: After producing back-to-back 4-5 seasons, the Jumbos concluded its 2022 campaign with six wins and three losses.
Wide receiver Phil Lutz was a big reason why the Jumbos enjoyed their best season since 2018 as the North Caldwell, New Jersey native finished the year with 78 catches for 1,221 yards and 14 touchdowns. Lutz averaged 15.7 yards per catch and established a new single-season record for touchdown receptions in New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC).
Lutz is currently one of 15 NCAA Division III student-athletes being considered for this year’s Gagliardi Trophy.
Quarterback Michael Berluti enjoyed his best year under center, throwing for a career-high 2,749 yards and 26 touchdowns. The Westwood, Massachusetts native completed a career-best 197 passes and averaged 305.4 passing yards per game.
The Jumbos’ 2022 momentum should carry over to the next season, which should help Tufts contend for its first-ever NESCAC crown.
University of Connecticut: The Huskies exceeded my expectations.
Coach Jim Mora guided UConn to its first six-win season in seven years to provide the Huskies with an additional contest this fall: their first bowl game since 2015.
The Huskies’ regular season concluded with a 34-17 loss to Army last weekend, but it was highlighted by halfback Victor Rosa, who rushed for a career-high 111 yards and a touchdown.
Prior to ending their regular season with a two-score setback, UConn scored three-straight wins over Boston College (13-3), UMass (27-10), and Liberty University (36-33).
No matter what transpires in UConn’s upcoming bowl game, the Huskies are heading in the right direction, thanks to their first-year coach.
University of New Hampshire: After concluding its 2021 campaign with an eight-game losing streak, the Wildcats bounced back to share the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) crown with William & Mary while earning a spot in this weekend’s NCAA FCS Tournament.
First-year coach Rick Santos guided the Navy Blue and White to an eight-win season this fall, along with a 7-1 conference mark.
Santos was tabbed the CAA Coach of the Year on Tuesday while halfback Dylan Laube collected a trio of end-of-season honors, including a spot on the All-Conference First team as a punt returner.
Laube will be one of a few players to watch this Saturday, November 26 when the Wildcats entertain Fordham University.