When addressing his University of Maine football team after Saturday’s gut-wrenching loss to New Hampshire, head coach Jack Cosgrove planted a positive thought in the heads of his teary-eyed players.
“I told them in the locker room, ‘don’t go to bed at night giving up hope,’” he explained. “‘[Good] things can happen, they always have.’”
What happened Sunday night was, the Black Bears earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
UMaine, ranked No. 20 Sunday in The Sports Network’s final regular-season poll, will travel to Cedar Falls, Iowa, for Saturday’s 5:05 p.m. first-round contest against fourth-ranked Northern Iowa (10-2), the No. 3 national seed. The Panthers were the champions of the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
UNI, which is making its 14th postseason appearance, was the national runner-up to Appalachian State in 2005.
The Bears went through most of their regular Sunday routine, except they skipped watching the tape of Saturday’s loss. The team then gathered in the locker room to watch the NCAA selection show on ESPNU-TV.
The drama unfolded slowly as the first six game pairings were announced without any mention of UMaine. The show went to commercial prior to the unveiling of the last two matchups, but some of the players noticed on ESPN’s “The Bottom Line” ticker a pairing listing Northern Illinois vs. Maine.
A buzz overtook the room, with some shouts of joy, according to junior quarterback Mike Brusko, although there was confusion because Northern Illinois is a Football Bowl Championship Subdivision team, not an FCS program.
“Then the show came back on and the very first game they showed was Maine against Northern Iowa,” Brusko said. “That’s when all hell broke loose. We didn’t want to celebrate before it was completely confirmed.”
Compared to the feeling they had experienced Saturday afternoon, the slight mix-up was a small price to pay.
“It was unreal. It was really emotional. We were speechless. It’s a memorable moment that you actually had to be there to see and feel,” Brusko said.
“It’s real exciting to actually get this second chance,” said senior defensive end Jovan Belcher. “I’m real proud right now. I get to play with my whole team. The saddest part of [Saturday] was, we weren’t all going to be on the same field again.”
The Black Bears, one of eight at-large squads selected for the 16-team field, are making their first postseason appearance since 2002, when they reached the national quarterfinals and lost at Georgia Southern.
“You hope people recognize you and respect you enough to put you in,” Cosgrove said Sunday night. “I think Black Bear football’s being respected by being invited into this tournament.”
UMaine is one of five teams from the Colonial Athletic Association to earn a playoff berth as determined by the NCAA Division I Football Championship Committee. Regular-season champion James Madison (10-1) won the automatic bid and is the No. 1 national seed, while New Hampshire (9-2), Villanova (9-2) and Richmond (9-3) also grabbed at-large bids.
Cosgrove explained the CAA actually went to bat for UMaine, lobbying for the Bears as the fifth team rather than trying to make a case for both UMaine and William & Mary.
“What it speaks to is our conference. Look at the power index,” Cosgrove said of the nation’s top-rated FCS league, which also put five teams in the field last year, including a 7-4 New Hampshire squad. “In Gridiron Power Index, we’re fifth in the conference and 12th in the country.”
William & Mary was sixth and 14th, respectively, he said.
In 2001, Northern Iowa beat UMaine 56-28 in a second-round (national quarterfinal) contest. The Panthers play in the UNI Dome, which means there will be no snow, no rain or no wind with which to contend.
The Bears are just glad their season isn’t over.
“I can’t say enough about how thankful I am and the rest of the guys are to have at least one more week and maybe extend it from there,” Brusko said.