ORONO, Maine — The University of Maine football team has preached the importance of being “November tough.”
Saturday afternoon, it was New Hampshire that best handled winter-like weather conditions at Alfond Stadium.
With Morse Field blanketed by snow and buffeted by frigid winds, the 11th-ranked Wildcats drove 79 yards for a fourth-quarter touchdown to pull out a 28-24 Colonial Athletic Association victory over the No. 17 Black Bears.
UNH (9-2, 6-2 CAA) punched its ticket to the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs while UMaine team (8-4, 5-3 CAA) also earned an at-large berth despite having its six-game win streak snapped.
“I’m proud of how they played, that’s for sure. Eight-win football teams most often go to the playoffs,” UMaine head coach Jack Cosgrove said after the game.
The Wildcats’ defense successfully slowed the Bears’ formidable rushing attack, which bogged down on the snowy, slippery FieldTurf. UMaine managed only 134 yards on the ground.
“We just weren’t running the ball as effectively as we wanted to,” Brusko said. “That’s a credit to [UNH]. It was tough footing, I know, for our guys up front.”
The ’Cats’ quick-strike offense overcame the harsh conditions to hit several key plays. UNH had touchdown runs of 46 and 18 yards and scoring passes of 29 and 22 yards.
“The part of this game that will stick out defensively is the four or five big plays that they made that really took away from the overall play of the defense,” Cosgrove said.
Up 24-21, UMaine was poised to extend the lead after Lionel Nixon Jr. intercepted quarterback R.J. Toman (6-for-12, 127 yards) at the Wildcats’ 37-yard line with 12 minutes to play.
However, a holding penalty later negated an apparent 19-yard touchdown run by Jhamal Fluellen and the hosts eventually gave up the ball on downs.
“We had the lead, we needed to make it a two-score game and we didn’t,” Cosgrove said.
UNH demonstrated its resolve, mounting an 11-play, 79-yard march. The Wildcats converted a fourth-and-1 on a Toman sneak and his 17-yard scramble on a subsequent third-and-11 extended the drive.
Wide receiver Mike Boyle took a quick screen pass on the right side, slipped through the grasp of two UMaine defenders and tiptoed down the sideline and inside the pylon for a 22-yard touchdown. Tom Bishop’s PAT kick put UNH in front with only 3:27 left.
“We should have had him tackled shortly after the catch,” Cosgrove said.
The Bears had two more shots, but were forced to abandon their preferred grind-it-out style and throw. Linebacker Terrence Klein intercepted one Brusko pass with 3:02 remaining, then picked off Brusko’s desperation fourth-down throw with 18 seconds left.
“Getting down late, we had to go the air and obviously we didn’t get the result we wanted to at the end,” Brusko said.
With five minutes left in the third quarter, defensive tackle Jon Pirruccello of Turner appeared to sack Toman in the end zone. Officials instead marked the ball at the 1.
After a punt, UMaine took over at the UNH 30 and needed six plays, and a fourth-down pass interference penalty, to score. Fluellen’s 3-yard run and Jordan Waxman’s PAT kick put the Bears on top 24-21.
“We really thought it was a safety,” said Bears end Jordan Stevens of Temple.
However, the Bears were unable to extend the lead on the last four possessions.
Linebacker Sean Wasson racked up 17 tackles and Downey made 10 to pace UMaine, while Matt Parent paced UNH with 12 tackles.
UNH took a 7-0 on its opening possession when Chad Kackert peeled off a 46-yard TD run.
The Bears equalized after Stevens stripped the ball from Kackert and Andrew Downey recovered. Pushaun Brown’s 3-yard run capped a six-play, 39-yard drive with 5:23 left.
A blocked punt by Derek Buttles four plays later gave the Bears the ball at the UNH 15, but UMaine had to settle for Waxman’s 30-yard field goal.
The Wildcats answered with a five-play march highlighted by a 21-yard pass from Toman to Scott Sicko and a facemask penalty. Kackert slipped through tacklers on an 18-yard TD scamper that put UNH in front 14-10 early in the second.
In the third quarter, Brusko’s 13-yard pass to Downey on a fake punt preserved a 62-yard drive capped by Brusko’s 1-yard keeper.
However, Toman threw a 35-yard pass to Chris Jeannot on the Wildcats’ next possession, which culminated with a 29-yard hookup from Toman to Boyle in the end zone.