DURHAM, N.H. — For nearly every narrow victory in this, the finest football season for the University of Maine in a half-century, an opportunity arose and Maine seized it.

On Saturday, the Black Bears had a chance for a tying touchdown on the opening drive of the second half against archrival New Hampshire. Instead of a short field goal, Maine opted for a fourth-down pass.

Safety Manny Asam swatted it away and the Wildcats went on to pin the first conference loss on Maine, 24-3 before a crowd of 10,333 at Cowell Stadium.

Maine ended the regular season with a 10-2 record, clinching the Colonial Athletic Association title last weekend with a 7-0 start in conference play. Ranked fourth in the country among Football Championship Subdivision schools, the Black Bears now await their placement in the 24-team NCAA tournament; the field will be announced Sunday.

“This is a new season coming up,” said Maine quarterback Marcus Wasilewski, whose streak of 170 passes without an interception ended late in the second quarter. “The wins and losses don’t even matter at this point because we’re 0-0 now.”

No. 21 New Hampshire (7-4 overall, 6-2 CAA) won for the sixth time in seven weeks in a furious bid to extend its nation-best streak of NCAA tournament appearances to 10 years.

“Yeah, we should be in the playoffs,” said UNH Coach Sean McDonnell, whose team entered the weekend ranked 26th in the Gridiron Power Index, a top indicator of playoff inclusion for the 13 at-large bids awarded to teams falling short of conference championships.

“We just beat a team that was undefeated in the best conference in the country, that the only (other) loss they have is to a (bowl-eligible) team.”

New Hampshire took a 10-3 halftime lead, but Rickey Stevens of Maine broke free for 60 yards on the first play of the third quarter. A run and two short passes left the Black Bears with a fourth-and-1 from the 14.

“I just didn’t think we were going to win the game kicking field goals,” said Maine Coach Jack Cosgrove. “I thought we had a good call and we needed to assert ourselves.”

Wasilewski faked a handoff and rolled right. Tight coverage made him hesitate, then a pass rusher made him attempt a throw to John Ebeling. Asam intervened.

“At first I thought he was going to run it,” Asam said, “but we got good pressure on him and he kind of threw it late and I was there to get my hand on it.”

Maine’s next five possessions yielded a single first down. A strip sack by linebacker Shane McNeely caused a Wasilewski fumble for Maine’s second turnover after six straight games without one.

New Hampshire needed only 20 yards to score. Quarterback Sean Goldrich – who relieved injured starter Andy Vailas late in the second quarter – scrambled and found Jimmy Giansante for a 6-yard pass as the Wildcats made it 17-3 late in the third.

Maine gave up its wind advantage for the fourth quarter, then saw Nico Steriti burst through the line and gallop 68 yards for a back-breaking touchdown.

“They’re a tough defense,” said Steriti, who finished with 139 yards on 18 carries. “They had their secondary guys flying down, stuffing the holes, so it was tough to get anything going. … But we knew little by little we’d get our opportunity.”

The Wildcats created their first opportunity with a reverse on a fake punt good for 7 yards and a first down on their second series, extending a 14-play drive culminating in a 5-yard TD pass from Vailas to Jordan Powell.

The first five Black Bear drives all took the ball into New Hampshire territory, but ended with four punts and a missed 27-yard field-goal attempt by Sean Decloux.

A two-minute drill engineered by Wasilewski led to Maine’s only points, a successful 27-yard field goal by Decloux with nine seconds remaining in the half to set the school’s single-season field-goal record of 14.

The loss was Maine’s 10th in 11 years against New Hampshire, which retained possession of the Brice-Cowell Musket displayed in the locker room of the winner of this annual interstate rivalry, now 101 years old.

“Hopefully the young guys can learn from this and remember what this feels like and bring it back next year,” said Wasilewski, who completed 27 of 43 passes for 220 yards and was sacked five times. “But we have playoffs to play right now and we’re going to get ready for that.”

Maine entered the weekend ranked fifth in GPI. The top eight seeds receive first-round byes and host a second-round game Dec. 7.

“Maine will get a bye,” McDonnell said. “If they don’t get a bye, it’s a (disappointment) because they’ve played the hardest schedule. … Look at what they did against Northwestern (a competitive 35-21 loss). Look at who they beat out of conference. They mauled everybody. They’re the CAA champions.”

Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at:

Gjordan@pressherald.com

Twitter: GlennJordanPPH