ORONO, Maine — Earlier this week, University of Maine football coach Jack Cosgrove was asked what it’s like playing a team in a must-win situation.
The reference was to Saturday’s noon game in Durham, N.H., against a University of New Hampshire team that is 6-4 overall, 5-2 in the Colonial Athletic Association and in need of a win to stand a legitimate chance of extending its string of consecutive NCAA playoff appearances to 10.
Cosgrove’s Black Bears have already captured the CAA championship and a Football Championship Subdivision playoff berth. They are 7-0 in conference play and 10-1 overall. The nation’s fourth-ranked Black Bears, winners of seven straight, will get a first-round bye and will host a second-round playoff game with a victory and could also do so without a win.
“I said, ‘Wait a second. In my 21 years as the head coach, we haven’t played a game that wasn’t a must-win for us. We are in this business to win. It’s a must-win game for us, too. That’s how we coach here and how our players look at every game. It’s almost an insult to our players [to insinuate] that the game isn’t important to them,” stressed Cosgrove. “Getting that Brice-Cowell Musket is the most important thing.”
The Brice-Cowell Musket is awarded to the winner of the Maine-New Hampshire game.
New Hampshire leads the series 49-43-8 thanks to nine wins in the last 10 meetings including five straight at Cowell Stadium. Four of the last five games have been decided by four points or less. UNH won 28-21 last season.
“This is going to be great for New England football. Maine has a real good football team,” said UNH coach Sean McDonnell, whose Wildcats are 4-0 at home.
The feeling is mutual.
“I have tremendous respect for their program and their coach. There is no program I respect more,” said Cosgrove. “They have made the playoffs nine straight years and have been ranked in the top 25 for 138 straight weeks.
“They don’t beat themselves. They find ways to win. We were up 14-0 on them last year but they came back and beat us,” added Cosgrove.
Both teams are ranked among the leaders in the CAA on the offensive side of the ball.
Maine is ranked second in passing yards (256.7 per game), third in scoring offense (32.5 ppg) and fourth in rushing offense (183.5 ypg) and total offense (440.3 ypg). UNH is third in rushing offense (194.7 ypg), passing (249.9 ppg) and total offense (444.6 ypg) and fourth in scoring (31.8 ppg).
UNH running back Nico Steriti (687 yards) is the leading rusher among the two teams but Maine has the next three in Rickey Stevens (606), Nigel Jones (571) and QB Marcus Wasilewski (458). Wasilewski has the CAA’s best passing efficiency rating (160.9 rating) as he has completed 228 of 327 passes for 2,789 yards and 23 TDs.
He has four receivers with 33 or more catches in John Ebeling (54 catches, 614 yards), Derrick Johnson (51-508), Damarr Aultman (37-493) and Justin Perillo (33-421). Tight end Perillo has been sidelined by a lower body injury but could return.
UNH uses two quarterbacks in Andy Vailas (122-203,1,316 yards) and Sean Goldrich (85-138, 1,087).
Justin Mello (56-784), R.J. Harris (40-531) and Harold Spears (29-378) are the top UNH receivers.
Maine does have an edge on defense, holding teams to 20.2 ppg and 329.4 ppg, second best in both categories, while UNH is tied for sixth (23.9 ppg) and eighth (422.8 ypg), respectively.
Linebackers Christophe Mulumba (98 tackles), Cabrinni Goncalves (77) and Troy Eastman (68) have led Maine’s defense while UNH has been paced by linebackers Shane McNeely (84) and Akil Anderson (77) and DB Manny Asam (65).
McDonnell said turnovers will be pivotal.
“When we’ve lost, we’ve turned the ball over,” said McDonnell. “We can’t afford to turn it over and we have to try to force some.”
They had nine turnovers in three of their losses.