Now we know the University of Maine will host rival New Hampshire at Alfond Stadium next Saturday afternoon, in the first home playoff game in the football team’s history.

The thing is, this shouldn’t be the first home playoff game in Black Bear football history. The 2002 team was deserving, and the tournament selection committee sent the Black Bears to Boone, N.C. for a first-round game at Appalachian State.

That year, Maine entered the playoffs with a 10-2 record, just like this season. The 2002 Black Bears spent part of the season ranked in the Top 10, just like this season. In 2002, it was a 16-team tournament, and home games were awarded not on merit, but on which schools the NCAA felt could draw the biggest crowd and bring in the most money.

Big wins didn’t matter as much as deep pockets. Maine didn’t pass the NCAA’s credit check.

So, Maine went to Appalachian State, where it played in front of a crowd of just under 5,000 fans, which is about what they’d been drawing for home games in Orono.

“We should have hosted a game,” Jake Eaton, the starting quarterback on the 2002 team, said. “I think if I didn’t get hurt, we could’ve made a deep run.”

Eaton injured his knee at Richmond in the next to last game of the regular season that year, and didn’t play at Appalachian State, where Maine won, 14-13, or at Georgia Southern, where Maine’s season came to an end in the quarterfinals. Maine played in the I-AA playoffs (now the Football Championship Subdivision) in Eaton’s junior and senior seasons, and went on the road for all four games.

Eaton remembered the atmosphere at McNeese State, in Louisiana, for the Black Bears’ first-round game in 2001.

“I remember pulling up to the stadium in the bus, and all those crazy southern fans were going berzerk,” Eaton said. “That was probably the best team we played against when I was at Maine.”

Can Maine fans be like that Saturday? Can they have the UNH players looking out the bus windows at thousands of screaming Black Bear fans? Can they get the Wildcats thinking, what have we stepped into?

Well, they can try, but it will take some doing.

The largest crowd to ever see a game at Alfond Stadium was 10,048, when the Black Bears hosted Northern Colorado on Sept. 11, 2004. That’s almost twice as large as the crowd at Maine’s last home game of the regular season. On Nov. 16 against Rhode Island, the Black Bears drew 5,067 fans.

The largest crowd for a Maine home game this season was 6,917 on Oct. 19 against William and Mary. That also was Homecoming. The Black Bears drew 6,304 for the Oct. 5 game against Delaware, and that’s the only other time the team drew more than 6,000 fans to Alfond Stadium this season.

Maine’s average home attendance for the 2013 regular season was 5,644. The football culture at the school is small, despite being competitive in the Colonial Athletic Association, one of the toughest FCS leagues. Fans and alumni statewide have never flocked to Orono on Saturday afternoons to cheer for the Black Bears.

It’s too bad. A lot of sports fans are missing a great product.

How big will the crowd be on Saturday? It should be the largest of the season, 7,000 fans is a respectable and reachable goal. It would be great to break the record of 10,048, but that might be asking too much.

Eaton went to Maine’s game at Gillette Stadium and saw the Black Bears beat Division I UMass. He keeps tabs on the team through emails coach Jack Cosgrove sends the alumni. Eaton would love to be in Orono on Saturday, but he’s the athletic director and boys basketball coach at Proctor High School, near his hometown of Rutland, Vt., and isn’t sure he can get away.

“I love what Coach Cosgrove has done,” Eaton said. “We were always good at home. This team’s the same.”

The Black Bears did their part, and earned the home playoff game. Now it’s up to the fans to come out and make it a memorable day.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242[email protected]Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

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