University of Maine players celebrate on Aug. 20, 2018, with the Brice-Cowell Musket, which goes annually to the winner of the Maine-New Hampshire football game. The Black Bears have won just two of the last 18 matchups between the schools. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Ray Miller, a linebacker for the University of Maine football team, had a few rivalry games while playing high school ball in Spartanburg, South Carolina. But, he said, he’s never experienced anything like what he’s seeing this week in Orono.

The Black Bears (5-5, 3-4 Colonial Athletic Association) play rival New Hampshire (3-7, 2-5) at 1 p.m. Saturday at Durham, New Hampshire. At stake is not only a winning season for Maine, but also the Brice-Cowell Musket, the grand reward presented to the winning team each year.

“It’s fiery,” said Miller, who transferred to Maine from Campbell University for his graduate year of studies. “My old school didn’t have a rivalry game. I had a few in high school, so I had a little taste of it. But this is another level.

“Talking about New Hampshire with my teammates, even with other sports teams here, it’s the real deal. I’m starting to not like them. And I don’t even know what they look like.”

This will be Miller’s first – and only – experience with the Border War, as it’s known. But his teammates know all too well the heartbreak that has been experienced with this game over the last two decades. Only twice in the last 18 years has Maine won the game.

Made by Ebenezer Nutting of Falmouth sometime between 1722 and 1745, the flintlock rifle is named after a pair of former head coaches at the schools, Fred Brice of Maine and William Cowell of New Hampshire.

Quarterback Joe Fagnano came to Maine in 2019 as a freshman and saw the musket, won by Maine in 2018, hanging in the locker room. Later that fall, the Wildcats reclaimed it with a 28-10 victory in Durham, that also ended the Black Bears playoff hopes that year.

“I miss it,” said Fagnano, who quarterbacked that 2019 loss. “I want to see it again.”

The game has added significance for the Black Bears. A win would allow them to finish with a winning record at 6-5. And that’s important.

“On top of everything, it’s a chance to end with a winning record,” said Fagnano, a junior who returned last week from an ankle injury that caused him to miss seven starts and led Maine to an impressive 35-10 win over Massachusetts. “Instead of 5-6, you’re 6-5, and that changes the whole mentality of the offseason. So this is not just another game. We know it’s a big one.”

Miller said a winning record would mean the program is “heading in the right direction. … For me, I’ve grown to really love these guys and I want to put them in the best possible situation going into next year.”

The game is not without significance for New Hampshire either. The Wildcats have lost seven consecutive games.

“All (games) are important,” said New Hampshire Coach Sean McDonnell, who has seen this rivalry from the perspective of a player as well. “This one is important for the program for the single reason we’re playing Maine and playing for the musket. Every year, that really means something. Every day, we like to look up and see it.

“But,” he added, “it’s also important because it’s the next (game) and we haven’t won the next one for a while.”

Maine’s playoff hopes ended on Nov. 6 in a 22-17 home loss to Stony Brook. Coach Nick Charlton said it was fortunate that Maine’s last two games meant something. They were against Massachusetts, a Football Bowl Subdivision team, and New Hampshire, its chief rival.

The Black Bears took care of UMass last week – just Maine’s fourth victory all time over an FBS program – and now they face the Wildcats. Charlton said the 2019 loss still gnaws at him and the players who were there.

“The guys feel like they would have had an opportunity to go play (in the playoffs) and they didn’t get it,” he said. “So we’re hungry.

Maine hasn’t won in Durham since 2001, losing its last nine games there. So Charlton knows, despite New Hampshire’s struggles this year, a victory Saturday won’t be easy.

“The records are pretty much irrelevant,” said Charlton. “We know it’s going to be a tough, physical game. This is a rivalry game with a lot of importance. And at the end of the day, it comes down to Maine’s discipline, execution and how we perform.”

Having Fagnano back helps. Derek Robertson led Maine to a 4-3 record in Fagnano’s absence. But, according to New Hampshire’s McDonnell, Fagnano “brings that it (factor) to that position. I watched him two years ago, then I watched him last spring, and I watched him pulling the trigger last week. He’s a confident kid and, it seems to me more important, what his presence on the field means to them. He is the straw that stirs the drink up there.”

Fagnano said it was important that he play the last two games of this season.

“Personally, I just wanted to go out there and prove I can still play some football,” he said. “It’s been a while. Mentally, it’s been a tough go not being able to play. But seeing the games with a different lens, a different perspective, improved my game a lot.

“It was a lot more mental reps, more time in the playbook, watching more film, seeing how football works, seeing it all. I saw the guys playing for each other, saw how much everyone loves this game. And it made me realize how fragile this game is, to not take one rep for granted.”

In beating UMass last week, Fagnano completed 16 of 27 passes for 209 yards and two touchdowns, without an interception.

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