ORONO — In the aftermath of the University of New Hampshire’s 41-27 victory over rival Maine Saturday in the second-round of the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, Wildcats Coach Sean McDonnell sought out Maine senior quarterback Marcus Wasilewski.
McDonnell said he was proud of Wasilewski, who took his lumps last year while attempting to fill the shoes of Warren Smith, the most prolific passer in program history.
A 12-yard slant from Wasilewski to tailback Rickey Stevens late in the third quarter Saturday broke Smith’s single-season record for passing yards. Wasilewski finished the year with 3,238 yards through the air, the best in program history. His two-year total of 5,613 yards ranks him sixth on the career list, behind Mike Buck, Ron Whitcomb, Smith, Mickey Fein and Jake Eaton, all of whom, unlike Wasilewski, started for at least three years.
“I watched him grow up,” McDonnell said later. “I watched him get better over a 12-game schedule and leading this team. You take a step back (from the playoff loss) and they had an unbelievable year up here.”
Indeed, while New Hampshire (9-4) moves on to Hammond, La., for a quarterfinal game Saturday night against fourth-seeded Southeastern Louisiana, the Black Bears (10-3) can only head to Hammond Lumber as they continue attempts to build a program to match the consistency of their neighbors 200 miles to the south.
New Hampshire is the only FCS program in the country to reach the playoffs 10 years in a row. The last time the Wildcats were not ranked among the nation’s top 25 teams was the first week of September 2004. Their closest pursuer, Montana State, is 83 weeks behind.
“We would love to be as consistent as they are,” said Maine Coach Jack Cosgrove, “but as I told the team in the locker room, we went to the playoffs in ’11 and again in ’13, so we’re making ground. I think we had a special group of seniors. Our theme in the postgame meeting was, ‘Let’s not forget what they gave us.’ ”
Seven of those seniors earned all-conference honors from the Colonial Athletic Association, which also bestowed its Chuck Boone Leadership Award upon Wasilewski. Voted to the first team were Wasilewski, tight end Justin Perillo, left guard Jeff Gakos and cornerback Kendall James.
Defensive end Michael Cole and right tackle Joe Hook made the second team and slot receiver John Ebeling the third.
Cole also rewrote the Maine record book. He leaves Orono with 29 sacks, bumping Mike Denino (27.5) to second place. Sophomore Sean Decloux kicked 16 field goals, three more than the previous mark for a single season.
The other seniors who contributed to Maine’s historic season, the only one in 121 years of the program with a 10-1 start, were Stevens, left tackle Tyler Patterson of Owls Head, wide receiver Derrick Johnson, linebacker Troy Eastman, free safety Jamal Clay, defensive end Erwin Roach and safety Lamar Fitzgerald.
“They set a standard of excellence,” Cosgrove said. “How to go about your business in January. How to go about your business in April, in July, in August preseason, how to prepare for the games in the fall.”
Coaching can only go so far, Cosgrove said, without strong senior leadership on and off the field.
“The best learning takes place when you’ve got guys in the locker room who embrace the values that you preach as a coach and model them on the practice field, model them out on Saturday nights,” he said. “This is a team that has done all the things that you would hope a group of 18- to 22-year-olds would do. They did things the right way.”
The reward was 10 victories, including a 24-14 defeat of Football Bowl Subdivision opponent University of Massachusetts, a game at Gillette Stadium that joined Maine’s 9-7 upset of Mississippi State in Starkville in 2004 on the winning ledger in 13 contests against opponents from Division I’s biggest programs.
The playoff game at Alfond Stadium was another first, and drew the biggest crowd (7,992) since a late October victory over Northeastern in 2004.
The final 16 teams to reach December – among the NCAA’s 120-plus FCS programs – included three CAA schools.
“Who’d have thought Maine and New Hampshire would be two of them?” Cosgrove mused. “Considering the league that we play in, the challenges we face geographically and the cold and dark up here, we’re proud of these guys. They’ve left an impact on our program.”
MAINE WASN’T the only seed bounced from the tournament. Coastal Carolina ignored single-digit temperatures to beat No. 8 Montana 42-35 in Missoula and running back DaMarcus James scored three touchdowns as Jacksonville State of Atlanta knocked off No. 6 McNeese State 31-10 in Lake Charles, La.
Southeastern Louisiana (11-2) scored a touchdown with 36 seconds left to escape with a 30-29 victory over visiting Sam Houston State, which had reached the national championship two years in a row.
The Lions, located across Lake Ponchartrain from New Orleans, will kick off with New Hampshire at 7 p.m. Saturday on ESPN3.
The CAA’s other entry, No. 7 Towson, will face No. 2 Eastern Illinois at 8 p.m. Friday on ESPN2.
GREG GATTUSSO, a defensive lineman on Penn State’s 1982 national championship team who most recently was a Maryland assistant for three years, is the new football coach at Albany.
A former head coach at Duquesne and a Pittsburgh assistant, Gattuso takes over for Bob Ford, who retired after 44 years with the Great Danes.
Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or Gjordan@pressherald.com