CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — University of Maine football coach Jack Cosgrove was asked this week if his Black Bears were playing with “house money” since they advanced despite thinking their season was over after losing to New Hampshire.

The clear message Cosgrove and his players delivered in talking about today’s NCAA playoff game against Northern Iowa is that they have earned the right to be in the 16-team field.

UMaine (8-4), ranked No. 20 in the country, makes its first postseason appearance since 2002 in today’s 5 p.m. contest against No. 4 Northern Iowa (10-2) at the UNI-Dome.

“I would think we all recognize how fortunate we are,” Cosgrove said. “During the year, as we got better and better, we earned some respect throughout the country. To me that’s why we’re in the playoffs.”

The contest will be aired live on the stations of the Black Bear sports radio network. It also can be seen via streaming video on the UNI athletics Web site at unipanthers.cstv.com.

UMaine plays today in a unique venue, the 16,324-seat UNI-Dome. In contrast to last week’s game against New Hampshire in Orono, the weather will not be a factor.

The Bears prepared by practicing inside the Mahaney Dome. That included blaring loud music in the hope of replicating the noise level expected here.

Cosgrove said the late Larry Mahaney, a generous UMaine benefactor, would be proud knowing the Bears had the luxury of utilizing the dome.

“This is the reason we put the dome up,” Cosgrove said. “Larry Mahaney had the vision that we would be competing for a national championship and that’s why we put it up.”

What UMaine can’t prepare for is the confidence UNI derives from its success in the dome — the Panthers’ “dome-field advantage.” UNI is 166-41-1 in the building.

Cosgrove said those kinds of intangibles don’t win games.

“We’re in a tournament that has the best 16 teams in the country and our margin for error is so small,” Cosgrove said. “We really have to be at our highest level in terms of assignments and execution at all times henceforth in this tournament. We have to really play our best football.”

Both teams have relied this season on their ability to run the football. UMaine must be able to do so to beat UNI.

The Bears got bogged down a bit in the snowy conditions last week, but have a formidable run game behind fullback Jared Turcotte of Lewiston, tailback Jhamal Fluellen and quarterback Mike Brusko, among others.

UMaine also must prove it can keep UNI off-balance with the pass, where Turcotte, Fluellen and wide receivers Landis Williams and Tyrell Jones are Brusko’s top targets.

“The play together and they play hard and we’ll have to see if we can find a way to move the football,” said UNI coach Mark Farley.

The Panthers also want to establish the run behind Corey Lewis, who is 25 yards shy of becoming the school’s all-time leading rusher. Derrick Law is another strong back.

UNI also can go to the air behind QB Pat Grace, who has Josh Collins and Lewis as his leading receivers.

The defenses have both proven solid against the run. UMaine is spearheaded by end Jovan Belcher and linebackers Andrew Downey and Sean Wasson.

“Now where in a place where we’re starting a new season,” said Bears senior punter Kash Kiefer. “The main thing is, we’re in the playoffs.”

Tradition is likely to be working in UNI’s favor. The Panthers are making the program’s 14th playoff appearance and they have won six straight first-round contests.

However, UMaine has been able to win in the playoffs, on the road, in the past and Cosgrove has preached the same kind of mentality in approaching today’s game.

“That’s the kind of thought process we have to embrace,” Cosgrove said. “It’s not just an opportunity, it’s an opportunity to win. We’ve got to now get them into the mindset that this is a great privilege that could last for a number of weeks if we play our best football.”

Bear tracks: The unselfishness and commitment of seniors Belcher and Fluellen was evident during UMaine’s charter flight to Iowa on Friday. UMaine’s co-captains opted to sit in the coach cabin and allow some of their classmates to enjoy the limited number of first-class seats set aside for the seniors … There are only three people associated with UMaine football who were in Cedar Falls for the Bears’ 2001 second-round game won by UNI 48-28. In addition to Cosgrove and equipment manager Steve Jones, assistant coach Dennis Dottin-Carter was a member of the 2001 squad … Coach Cosgrove is accompanied on the trip by his wife Marilyn and three of his children, twins Matthew and Carly and younger daughter Sydni. Prior to Friday’s walk-through at the UNI-Dome, Cosgrove threw the football around with his son.

pwarner@bangordailynews.net

990-8240

Pete Warner

Pete graduated from Bangor High School in 1980 and earned a B.S. in Journalism (Advertising) from the University of Maine in 1986. He grew up fishing at his family's camp on Sebago Lake but didn't take...