DURHAM, N.H. — So close again. So very close.

But the University of Maine lost another football game to New Hampshire on Thursday night at Wildcat Stadium, this one a gut-punch 24-23 decision in a season opener before a record crowd of 15,854.

Again, kicking woes plagued the Black Bears, who had just one field goal last season. Against UNH, they had one field blocked, another one wide right and a point-after kick wide left in the fourth quarter that would have tied the game.

The loss was Maine’s eighth straight to the Wildcats and 15th in 16 games, meaning the Brice-Cowell musket – presented annually to the winner of this game – will stay in New Hampshire’s locker room for another year.

The disappointment was tangible in Maine Coach Joe Harasymiak’s voice.

“It was an unbelievable game,” he said. “Obviously the bottom line is we just didn’t make enough plays. We’ve got to keep making plays and battle back.”

It came down to one final drive by the Black Bears.

Trailing by one point, they got the ball at their 21 with 2:45 remaining. A 14-yard completion from redshirt freshman Chris Ferguson – making his first start – to Jared Osumah gave Maine a first down at the New Hampshire 46. But a false start penalty – Maine’s 10th penalty of the game – pushed the Black Bears back 5 yards.

On third-and-9 from the 45, Ferguson was sacked by Rick Holt at midfield – New Hampshire’s first sack of the game. Quinlen Dean intercepted Ferguson on the next play to end Maine’s hopes.

“That rush, I thought there was a little extra from the guys,” said New Hampshire Coach Sean McDonnell. “We needed it at that time.”

New Hampshire jumped in front early in the fourth, getting an 11-yard touchdown pass from Trevor Knight to a wide-open Rory Donovan crossing the back of the end zone. Morgan Ellman’s PAT made it 24-17 with 13:41 left.

Maine came right back, as Ferguson found Jason Simonovich for a 4-yard touchdown pass with 9:07 left. But Kenny Doak’s PAT was wide left.

Ferguson had a strong showing, completing 23 of 44 passes for 239 yards and three touchdowns, two to Jaleel Reed. But New Hampshire intercepted him twice in the fourth quarter.

Josh Mack rushed for 103 yards for the Black Bears and Osumah caught six passes for 72 yards.

“Mental mistakes by me,” said Ferguson of the interceptions.

Mack was quick to add, “It wasn’t just his mental mistakes. The team made mental mistakes.”

None more glaring than the 10 penalties for 90 yards. One stood out.

With the score 7-7, Jason Matovu appeared to intercept Knight at midfield, but Najee Goode of Maine was called for a 10-yard holding penalty, negating the interception and giving UNH a first down at its 40.

On the next play, Knight lateraled to wide receiver Neil O’Connor on the left. He pulled up and threw a high looping pass that somehow landed in the hands of teammate Malik Love with a Maine defender on him. Love pulled away to complete a 60-yard scoring play that gave UNH a 14-7 lead with 33 seconds left in the first quarter.

Harasymiak preached discipline all preseason and especially in the days leading up to the game.

“We’ve just got to keep preaching it,” he said. “At some point they’ve got to get it.”

Maine’s young players played exceptionally. In addition to Ferguson and Mack, a sophomore, was redshirt freshman linebacker Jaron Grayer with 10 tackles and a sack.

The kicking game didn’t help. Maine was 1 of 7 in field goals last year so Harasymiak brought in Doak on scholarship, but he was 1 for 3 on field-goal attempts and missed the final PAT.

“You can’t measure when you get under the lights,” he said. “There’s a difference kicking in a Thursday night Division I game and a Thursday night at practice.”

Maine made big plays. New Hampshire made more.

As Knight stressed, the Wildcats didn’t want to lose the musket.

“It’s really important to keep it in our locker room,” he said. “We don’t want to be the guys who lose it. I thought we rose up when we needed to.”

Each time Maine came close, New Hampshire responded, as it did last year in a 24-21 win that knocked Maine out of the playoffs in the last game of the season.

“The last two years have been two of the toughest losses I’ve been around,” said Harasymiak. “It stinks. Losing is awful. Now we’ve got to bounce back.”

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

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Twitter: MikeLowePPH