Familiar Foes Face Off Again
Durham — When the University of New Hampshire football team played Maine two weeks ago, it was desperate.
“For us in that game it was win or pick up the stuff for the winter,” said coach Sean McDonnell.
The Black Bears weren’t under such pressure. After clinching the CAA title the week before, they expected to get a high seed and a bye in the first round of the FCS playoffs, which they did.
The stakes are the same for both clubs now as they prepare to meet today at Alfond Stadium with a berth in the national quarterfinals on the line.
“It’s definitely unusual,” safety Nick Cefalo said of playing the Black Bears again so soon. “We’ve got to approach it like it’s our first time playing them. They are a great team. We’ll go about it like we did two weeks ago and stick to our game plan.”
The fact that Maine, the No. 5 seed, is hosting the program’s first playoff game only adds to a rivalry dominated by the Wildcats over the last decade.
UNH has won 10 of the last 11 meetings, including a 24-3 victory two weeks ago that snapped the Black Bears’ seven-game win streak.
“Because of the way we beat them the first time, they’ll definitely have a chip on their shoulder,” said sophomore linebacker Akil Anderson. “You never want to lose to a team twice. They’ll have something to prove. They won the conference. They’ll come out with fire and give us everything they have. It’s on us to weather the storm.”
Two weeks ago, UNH held Maine without a touchdown for the first time this season.
“We beat them a couple weeks ago,” said linebacker Shane McNeely, the Wildcats’ leading tackler, “but we’re not worried about that right now. That’s in the past. We’re working on beating them again.”
The victory propelled the Wildcats into the NCAA tournament for the 10th consecutive year, the longest active streak in the nation.
“We came out firing in that game,” Cefalo said. “We came out really emotional.”
That effort carried over to last week when UNH routed Lafayette, 45-7, in the opening round to advance.
It was the Wildcats’ fourth straight win and their seventh in the last eight games. Now they’ll try to win back-to-back playoff games for the first time.
“The teams know each other very well,” Maine coach Jack Cosgrove said. “There is a high level of respect on both ends. It will come down to whoever’s playing at a high level on Saturday.”
UNH would love an encore performance with five sacks and two takeaways. The Wildcats did not turn the ball over against Maine and committed just one penalty for 5 yards.
“We got through the game pretty clean,” McDonnell said. “Turnovers are going to be very, very important. The team that plays the hardest and the team that makes the (fewest) mistakes will win this football game.”
In the first game Maine converted only 3 of 15 third-down opportunities. The Black Bears were also 0 for 2 on fourth down.
The Wildcats held the visitors to just one field goal in three trips into the red zone.
“I think we did a good job following the game plan and following what we were preaching all week in practice,” said Cefalo, who returned a punt 86 yards for a touchdown against Lafayette.
UNH had 10 sacks in last week’s win over Lafayette, including three by defensive end Jay Colbert.
The Wildcats have allowed only 10 points in their last two games, with only three coming against the starters. They haven’t given up more than 20 points in a game in almost two months.
“I think we’re more cohesive as a unit,” Cefalo said. “That’s definitely helped a lot. I don’t think it’s a change in scheme so much as everybody buying in and everyone just doing their job.”
“I’m really pleased with the way we’ve developed as a defense,” McDonnell said. “I think the kids are gaining confidence.”
Offensively, UNH featured a balanced attack against Lafayette with 283 yards rushing and 268 passing. Sean Goldrich passed for 267 yards and two touchdowns to R.J. Harris and redshirt freshman Dalton Crossan.
“He’s a kid who’s pretty dynamic,” McDonnell said of Crossan. “He’s explosive when he gets the ball in his hands. He’s got a chance to score from a bunch of different points.”
Crossan finished with 131 all-purpose yards and two scores, one receiving and one rushing.
“We know what’s at stake,” he said, “and we know what we have to do to win. We’ve got to come out and have a good week of practice and finish out the week strong and stay focused the whole game because it’s win or go home.”
Maine features senior quarterback Marcus Wasilewski, who is ranked in the top 20 nationally in five statistical categories.
“He’s very smart with the ball and doesn’t make a lot of mistakes,” McNeely said. “If we could get pressure on him again, that would be great. Sacks are big. They’re drive-killers. If we could get a couple of those and get some momentum going it will be in our favor.”
The Black Bears are 5-0 at home this season, compared with 1-4 last year. They have impressive wins over Delaware (62-28) and William & Mary (34-20).
William & Mary is the only team to beat UNH over the past two months. The Tribe blanked the Wildcats, 17-0, in Williamsburg, Va. on Nov. 2.
“Going up (to Orono) to play Maine at their place for a real big reward is going to be a major-league challenge for us,” McDonnell said.
“We’re fighting for our lives,” Anderson said. “Every game is another week of oxygen. That’s how we have to play.”