ORONO — It would not be an understatement to say that the University of Maine’s biggest football game of the season will come Thursday, in the Black Bears’ season opener.

Opening games can set the tone for the rest of the season.

But Thursday? It has added meaning for Maine. The Black Bears are playing their rivals, the University of New Hampshire at Wildcat Stadium at 7 p.m.

New Hampshire is one of the model programs in the Colonial Athletic Association and has made the NCAA playoffs an amazing 13 consecutive years. The Wildcats have beaten Maine in their last seven meetings – and 14 of the last 15. The most-recent game was on Nov. 19, a 24-21 last-second decision in Orono, a loss that eliminated UMaine from a playoff berth.

It still lingers.

“I just think there’s a bad taste in our mouths from last season,” said Jamil Demby, a senior left tackle. “We were close to winning that game. They took it from us. Our main focus is to win it back.”

That’s something that Joe Harasymiak, Maine’s second-year head coach, has tried to tap into this preseason. When trying to figure out how to approach this game without making it bigger than it already is, he tapped into the players’ emotions.

“To me, it’s about going against a team that took everything away from you and it just so happens to be your rival,” he said. “There were playoff implications (last year), lost in last seconds. That’s more the motivation. Yes it’s your rival. Yes, it’s the first game. But this team took away your playoff opportunity. That’s more the focus for us.”

Beating New Hampshire is the unquestioned No. 1 goal of the program, to bring the Brice-Cowell Musket – presented annually to the winner of the rivalry – back to Orono for the first time since 2010.

“This game is the Super Bowl for us,” said Josh Mack, a sophomore running back. “It has a Super Bowl atmosphere.”

Harasymiak wouldn’t go that far, but he acknowledged, “We have to start to beat them if we want to be relevant in this league.”

It won’t be easy. Maine hasn’t won in Durham since 2001. The Wildcats have some of their top players returning this season, led by quarterback Trevor Knight, wide receivers Malik Love and Neil O’Connor and cornerback Prince Smith.

And Maine will be short-handed. Not only are the Black Bears missing two of their best players – wide receiver Micah Wright and defensive tackle Uchenne Egwuonwu, who continue to serve a suspension while being investigated by the school’s Student Conduct Office in the Division of Student Life for a student complaint – but Harasymiak said Monday that three other players are suspended for the opener.

Linebacker Spencer Carey, running back Darian Davis-Ray and linebacker Zach Hume have been suspended for a violation of the Student-Athletes Code of Conduct for an incident from last spring. Carey and Davis-Ray received a one-game suspension, Hume a two-game suspension.

Harasymiak and his players point to one simple aspect as the key to beating the Wildcats.

“It’s as simple as being disciplined,” said Najee Goode, a senior cornerback. “We have everything it takes to beat those guys. We just seem to fall apart at key times in the game and they pull away. They always seem like a veteran group. They always play like that, like they’re prepared for those moments and they stay disciplined and do their job.”

Harasymiak has stressed discipline throughout the preseason, not only to beat just New Hampshire, but in every game.

“My message is clear: we have to play a disciplined football game to have a chance to win,” he said. “That, to me, is the reason they have beaten us seven straight years since I’ve been here. They’ve been more disciplined than us and, obviously, what comes with that is they’ve made plays at crucial times. We haven’t played terrible. It’s been competitive games but they have executed better than us in crucial moments.”

Thursday’s game – win or lose – will have season-long implications. The first five games will be tough, including road games at defending FCS champ James Madison, FBS member Central Florida and perennial CAA power Villanova.

“If we win, if we beat UNH, it will also show us where we are as a team,” said Chris Ferguson, the redshirt freshman who will make his first start as Maine’s quarterback. “Beat them, get that first win, it will give us a lot of confidence.”

And the musket.

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

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