The first guy to leave the Memorial Union in Orono following the NCAA playoff selection show nine days ago was University of Maine defensive coordinator Paul Ferraro.
“I love it,” exclaimed Ferraro as he strode toward the door moments after learning of fifth-seeded Maine’s potential opponent in the second round of the Football Championship Subdivision tournament. “I love it.”
New Hampshire, which spoiled Maine’s perfect Colonial Athletic Association record less than 24 hours earlier, would have to come to Orono for a rematch should the Wildcats win a first-round home game against Lafayette.
Indeed, New Hampshire rolled over the Patriot League champion Leopards 45-7 at Cowell Stadium to earn another date with Maine (10-2), the CAA champion. Kickoff is scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday at Alfond Stadium.
“It’s rare that you get to have a second chance to play against an opponent like this,” said Black Bears tailback Rickey Stevens, who gained 86 yards on eight carries in Maine’s 24-3 road loss that vaulted New Hampshire (8-4) into the tournament for a national-best 10th consecutive year. “It’s something we’re definitely looking forward to and going to be ready to go.”
Stevens and the rest of the Black Bears took a few days off last week to go home for Thanksgiving. They returned to Orono for a workout Sunday night and will spend the rest of the week preparing to reverse the result from 10 days earlier.
“We’re not changing personnel and we’re not changing schemes,” said Coach Jack Cosgrove. “I don’t think New Hampshire is. If you get this far, you’ve got to rely on the people and the game plans that you’ve used to this point, then trust the fact that those involved will perform to the level that they need to.”
Twenty-four teams entered the national tournament. Sixteen remain. The top eight seeds will host second-round games Saturday.
The Maine-New Hampshire winner is scheduled to play the winner of Southeastern Louisiana (10-2) and Sam Houston State (9-4). A two-time national finalist, Sam Houston beat Southern Utah 51-20 over the weekend.
To advance to the quarterfinals for the second time in three years, the Black Bears must find a way through a New Hampshire defense that recorded 10 sacks against Lafayette to go with five the previous weekend against Maine.
Not all that responsibility lies with the offensive line. Cosgrove said receivers need to do a better job of getting open.
“I would say three of the five were coverage sacks, attributed to the great job the New Hampshire secondary did,” Cosgrove said. “Same in the run game. We hit a couple but we weren’t consistent and we need to do a better job on the mano-a-mano stuff. That’s what it really comes down to.”
In Durham last month, New Hampshire held Maine to 95 yards on the ground. That included a 60-yard run by Stevens to open the second half.
“We like to think we’re going to be able to give our opponents a healthy dose of run and pass, a good balance,” Cosgrove said. “In games when we’re doing that stuff, our offense is operating at the level it needs to be. When one or the other is not there, you become one-dimensional and more easily defended.”
Marcus Wasilewski completed 27 of 43 passes against New Hampshire but saw his streak of 170 without an interception end late in the second quarter. A strip sack by linebacker Shane McNeely created a second turnover.
In Maine’s previous six games, the Black Bears had zero turnovers.
The Wildcats have won 10 of their past 11 meetings with Maine. They’ve also won seven of their eight games this season since a 1-3 start.
“Our backs have been against the wall for a long time,” said New Hampshire Coach Sean McDonnell.
“I don’t think any of that stuff means a whole lot once you get to that Sunday and you get picked to be in the NCAA playoffs. Everybody’s got the same type of feeling. It’s one and done. It’s win and go on. It’s lose and go home.”
Twice before in McDonnell’s 15-year tenure the Wildcats met a regular-season opponent in the playoffs. Both times New Hampshire lost the rematch, to Massachusetts in 2006 and Villanova in 2009.
“I don’t have a whole lot of success in playing teams twice,” McDonnell said. “The biggest thing is, you have to evaluate how they attack you, how they defend you, how they do their special teams. … I’m sure (Cosgrove) is going to change a little bit and I’m sure their kids are going to be ready for this one. Not that they weren’t ready for the first one, but they’ll be ready.”
Maine never has faced a regular-season opponent in the playoffs, nor have the Black Bears ever hosted a tournament game. They were 1-4 at home a year ago but are unbeaten this season at Alfond, “a place we want to defend and honor,” Cosgrove said. “That’s something that has been a key to our season.”
McDonnell said New Hampshire’s familiarity with the facilities in Orono – most of his players made the trip north in 2012 and many did so in 2010 –will be a positive.
“The bad thing is you’re playing a hell of a football team at home where they’re 5-0,” he said. “There’s a lot of other places that I’d rather be going than to play a really good football team like Maine in Orono.”
The Brice-Cowell Musket, traditionally awarded to the winner of this border rivalry that stretches back for more than a century, will remain in Durham. The CAA championship trophy sits in a chair in Cosgrove’s office.
“We’re proud of the CAA title,” Stevens said. “We’re proud of the way the guys jelled around here, but we definitely have something bigger in front of us. We definitely have our eyes focused on what’s in front of us right now, and that’s UNH for this week.”
Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at: