The first guy to leave the Memorial Union following the NCAA playoff selection show nine days ago was University of Maine defensive coordinator Paul Ferraro.
“I love it,” exclaimed Ferraro as soon as he learned of fifth-seeded Maine’s potential opponent in the second round of the Football Championship Subdivision tournament. “I love it!”
Arch-rival New Hampshire, the team that had spoiled Maine’s perfect Colonial Athletic Association record less than 24 hours earlier, would have to come to Orono for a rematch should the Wildcats win a first-round home game against Lafayette.
Indeed, New Hampshire rolled over the Pioneer League champion Leopards 45-7 at Cowell Stadium in Durham to earn another date with Maine (10-2), the CAA champion. Kickoff is scheduled for 2:05 p.m Saturday at Alfond Stadium.
“It’s rare that you get to have a second chance to play against an opponent like this,” said Black Bears senior tailback Rickey Stevens, who gained 86 yards on eight carries in Maine’s 24-3 loss in Durham to vault New Hampshire (8-4) into the tournament for a nation-best 10th consecutive year. “It’s something we’re definitely looking forward to and going to be ready to go.”
Stevens and the rest of the Black Bears took a few days off last week to go home for Thanksgiving. They returned to Orono for a workout Sunday night and will spend the rest of the week preparing to reverse the result from 10 days earlier.
“We’re not changing personnel and we’re not changing schemes,” Maine head coach Jack Cosgrove said. “I don’t think New Hampshire is. If you get this far, you’ve got to rely on the people and the game plans that you’ve used to this point, and then trust the fact that those involved will perform to the level that they need to.”
Twenty four teams entered the national tournament. Sixteen remain. The top eight seeds will host second-round games Saturday, with the Maine-New Hampshire winner scheduled to play the winner of No. 4 Southeastern Louisiana (10-2) and Sam Houston State (9-4), which has reached the national finals two years in a row and beat Southern Utah 51-20 over the weekend.
In order to advance, the Black Bears must find a way through a New Hampshire defense that recorded 10 sacks against Lafayette to go along with five the previous weekend against Maine. Not all that responsibility lies within the offensive line. Cosgrove said receivers need to do a better job of getting open.
“I would say three of the five were coverage sacks,” Cosgrove said in a Monday morning conference call, “attributed to the great job the New Hampshire secondary did. Same in the run game. We hit a couple, but we weren’t consistent and we need to do a better job on the mano-a-mano stuff. That’s what it really comes down to.”
In Durham, New Hampshire held Maine to 95 yards on the ground. That included a 60-yard run by Stevens to open the second half.
Quarterback Marcus Wasilewski completed 27 of 43 passes but saw his streak of 170 without an interception end late in the second quarter. A strip sack by Shane McNeely created a second turnover, Maine’s second of the day after playing the previous six games without giving up the ball.
“We like to think we’re going to be able to give our opponents a healthy dose of run and pass, a good balance,” Cosgrove said. “In games when we’re doing that stuff, our offense is operating at the level it needs to be. When one or the other is not there, you become one-dimensional and more easily defended.”
The Wildcats have won 10 of their past 11 meetings with Maine. They’ve also won seven of eight games this season since a 1-3 start.
“Our backs have been against the wall for a long time,” said New Hampshire head coach Sean McDonnell. “I don’t think any of that stuff means a whole lot once you get to that Sunday and you get picked to be in the NCAA playoffs. Everybody’s got the same type of feeling. It’s one and done. It’s win and go on. It’s lose and go home.”
Twice before in McDonnell’s 15-year tenure the Wildcats met a regular-season opponent in the playoffs. Both times, New Hampshire lost the rematch, to the University of Massachusetts in 20xx and to Villanova in 2008.