ORONO — The rifle returned to Durham, and with it went any lingering playoff hopes for the University of Maine football team.

The New Hampshire Wildcats, ranked 14th in the nation among Football Championship Subdivision schools, showed they have more than a high-octane offense Saturday afternoon. They held off upset-minded Maine 28-21 on a soggy Morse Field before a homecoming crowd of 4,873 at Alfond Stadium.

It was the 100th edition of the Maine-New Hampshire football rivalry, signified by the Brice-Cowell Musket that has resided, under glass, in the UNH locker room for eight of the past nine years. The Wildcats (6-2 overall, 4-1 in the Colonial Athletic Association) held it aloft on the sideline Saturday afternoon after running out the clock with a pair of first downs by junior Chris Setian, who led all rushers with 76 yards on 17 carries.

“I remember vividly being up here two years ago and losing it, and having those guys run across the field and ask for it,” UNH senior linebacker Alan Buzbee said of the 1700-era flintlock rifle. “It was weird not having it in there (following Maine’s 2010 overtime victory). That was one thing we put on our goal list, was to get that thing back.”

That New Hampshire appears on its way to a ninth straight playoff appearance and Maine (2-5, 1-3) is still looking for its first home victory mattered little Saturday.

The Black Bears jumped to a 14-0 lead on touchdown passes of 15 and 16 yards from Marcus Wasilewski to tight end Justin Perillo after both teams had gotten drenched during warm-ups because of a heavy downpour.

“It was a great feeling to be up on top against a great team,” said Perillo, who reached around unsuspecting UNH linebacker Matt Evans — whose back was turned to Wasilewski — to catch the first TD pass. “The weather was bad, but we still made plays out there.”

Perillo’s second score came after a 41-yard screen pass to Rickey Stevens Jr. Sean Decloux’s second of three PAT kicks made it 14-0 early in the second quarter. The Black Bears kept coming up with big plays on defense: an interception by Sherrod Baltimore, a third-down sack by Donte Dennis and a forced fumble by Kendall James, recovered by Troy Russell.

The Wildcats, ranked second in the CAA in offense, finally broke loose late in the half. After four consecutive runs, a play-action pass into blown coverage allowed quarterback Sean Goldrich to connect with uncovered tight end Harold Spears for a 79-yard touchdown.

Still, a missed PAT kick made it 14-6, and Maine nearly got it back on the next play from scrimmage, when Wasilewski’s 30-yard heave down the middle caught Damarr Aultman in stride, but Aultman couldn’t hang on.

“Damarr is fast,” Cosgrove said. “It might have been 79 for them and 79 for us, but it didn’t happen.”

Instead, it was New Hampshire fashioning a 12-play scoring drive in the final three minutes of the half, culminating in a 22-yard touchdown pass from Goldrich to R.J. Harris. Setian’s two-point conversion run tied the score at 14 with 57 seconds left.

Buzbee, the New Hampshire linebacker, took advantage of a miscommunication between Wasilewski and Stevens to intercept a pass near midfield and return it 46 yards before being tackled inches from the end zone by the Maine quarterback.

Even then, Maine’s defense stiffened, holding off UNH for two plays before Goldrich, a red-shirt freshman starting at quarterback for the first time since a shoulder injury in the second game of the season, connected with Setian for a 5-yard touchdown pass that sent UNH into the break with a 21-14 lead.

“Any type of turnover is a big momentum swing,” Buzbee said, “especially going into the half, especially after being down 14-0.”

A third-quarter interception of Wasilewski — on a pass that bounced off the hands of receiver Arthur Williams – led to New Hampshire’s final scoring drive, covering only 18 yards. Once again, it was Goldrich to Spears for six yards and a 28-14 lead.

“That was really the turning point, those two interceptions,” Cosgrove said. “But our guys fought right to the end.”

A long kickoff return by Aultman set up a 60-yard Maine scoring drive, capped by a 23-yard dump-and-run slant to Williams with New Hampshire blitzing. It was 28-21 in the first minute of the fourth quarter and Maine had life.

New Hampshire’s defense forced three more punts, however, and UNH punter Mike MacArthur drilled a 71-yarder from his own end zone after the pendulum seemed to be swinging back toward Maine.

Maine cornerback Kendall James blocked a 39-yard field goal attempt by MacArthur that might have clinched victory for UNH with 3:21 remaining, but the Black Bears couldn’t capitalize.

“I think they’re the best team in our league,” Cosgrove said. “I told our guys afterward, ‘If that’s the best team in the league, we’re pretty close.’ “

 

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