DURHAM, N.H. — You saw the safety net beneath the University of Maine football team Saturday afternoon. The players and coaches say they didn’t. Or chose to ignore it.

New Hampshire beat Maine 24-3 and your Black Bears fell hard. They were stung by the defeat. Never mind that Maine had a spot in the NCAA postseason before the kickoff and should still get the first-round bye because it is the Colonial Athletic Association’s outright champion.

Never mind that the conference trophy was handed to them last week after the 41-0 win over Rhode Island. Never mind they spit in the eye of those who picked Maine to finish eighth in the conference preseason poll. Coach Jack Cosgrove’s boys were 7-0 when more than 10,000 fans stood to sing the national anthem in this Depression-era stadium.

Maine was ranked No. 4 in the Football Championship Subdivision, once known as Division I-AA. Beating New Hampshire was going to be the big, bold exclamation point to the season no one expected.

All Maine had to do was muster up the intensity to beat its cross-border rival and bring the Brice-Cowell Musket back to Orono. Instead, New Hampshire turned the tables. The Wildcats had to win to be considered for the FCS playoffs. Their safety net was in tatters.

Don’t insinuate that New Hampshire had more at stake, said Cosgrove. That would show too little respect for a coach and a team that executed its game plan exceedingly well. “We got beat today. They did everything they needed to do to win.”

Tight end Justin Perillo and defensive back Jamal Clay sat nearby, staring ahead. Perillo has an injured knee, Clay had recent surgery on his right hand. The brace and cast were very visible. So was the hurt of defeat.

Neither needed to play but both felt they must.

They could have taken the week off to rest and recuperate for the playoffs.

Not play? Perillo looked puzzled. “Winning the musket back was important,” he said.

What didn’t I understand?

We live in the 21st century. We forget sometimes that the significance of an 18th-century flintlock that might have defended a family or a colony and probably helped provide food for a winter can be powerful.

Hey, a Maine man made the musket: Ebenezer Nutting of Falmouth.

Clay simply had to get back onto the field. He was hurt, he said. Past tense. You fight to move up the depth chart, you fight to rejoin your teammates when everything is on the line.

Safety net? Satisfaction over a string of victories already in the book? It doesn’t matter, said Marcus Wasilewski, the quarterback. Each game is its own battle; players don’t look back or ahead. Their job was to beat New Hampshire and they didn’t. Not at all.

New Hampshire, which hopes to reach the playoffs for the 10th straight year, smothered Maine receivers. If the pass was completed there was no where to run.

“We made sure we knew what we were doing before it happened,” said Manny Asam, New Hampshire’s senior safety. He had eight solo tackles to lead the Wildcats. His teammates sacked Wasilewski five times. Maine rolled up and down the field but never into the end zone.

Asam didn’t gloat. He wasn’t giddy. New Hampshire’s five-year record in conference is 41-20, the best among CAA schools. Asam and his senior teammates don’t have to boast.

“It’s about pride,” he said. “Who plays the hardest.”

Saturday, New Hampshire did.

Maine lost. With seven minutes left, the visiting grandstand was showing a lot of aluminum. When the game began, there was nothing shiny but the expectations that Maine would win.

If there’s no exclamation point to its conference season, neither should there be a question mark.

Maine most likely will fall in the national poll rankings. As conference champion, it should keep its first-round bye. Saturday’s loss will be a persistent reminder of what this team has left to prove.

Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

ssolloway@pressherald.com

Twitter: SteveSolloway