DURHAM, N.H. — The University of New Hampshire offense has been compared to a ticking bomb — it’s only a matter of time before it explodes.
The ninth-ranked Wildcats finally solved the University of Maine’s defense to score 17 second-half points Saturday to pull out a 27-24 Colonial Athletic Association victory at sunny Cowell Stadium.
Coach Jack Cosgrove’s Black Bears finished the season 5-6 overall, 4-4 in league play, while New Hampshire (9-2, 6-2 CAA) clinched the North Division title and should receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Championship.
The Wildcats generated plenty of momentum in the second half after Dino Vasso’s 37-yard interception return set up the first of the hosts’ three second-half scores.
UMaine stayed in the thick of things, thanks in great part to Trevor Coston’s fourth-quarter interception in the end zone, but the Bears ultimately were unable to match UNH’s playmaking ability in the late going.
Sophomore quarterback Chris Treister of Cape Elizabeth led the Bears while completing 29 of 48 passes for 303 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Senior wideout Mike Brusko made 13 catches for 119 yards and a TD.
UMaine held UNH quarterback R.J. Toman to 146 yards and no TDs on 14-for-26 accuracy, while Chad Kackert managed 85 yards on 19 attempts.
Linebacker Vinson Givans led the Bears with nine tackles. Terrence Klein posted 14 to pace UNH.
UMaine outgained UNH 398-294, converted 15 of 23 (65 percent) third-down situations and held a 12-minute edge in time of possession.
The Wildcats’ surge began when Vasso picked off a Treister pass and returned it to the UM 33. UNH scored in two plays, on Dontra Peters’ 14-yard end-around with 7:23 left in the third quarter.
UMaine answered with a 14-play, 77-yard touchdown march that included four third-down conversions, among them Brown’s 1-yard TD dive with 45 seconds remaining in the third quarter to give the Bears a 24-17 edge.
UNH countered after a 37-yard kickoff return by Chad Kackert helped set up Tom Manning’s 52-yard field goal with the wind at his back. He actually made the kick twice, the first an instant after UNH Coach Sean McDonnell called a timeout.
Still trailing 24-20, the Wildcats went on top for good with 2:26 to play. A 41-yard screen pass from Toman to Joey Orlando set up a 5-yard TD run by Kackert.
UMaine managed one first down on its last possession, but Treister was leveled and threw an incomplete pass on fourth-and-5 from the UM 49 with 1:32 left.
UMaine played a strong first half, emerging with a 17-10 advantage. Each team scored on its first and last possession of the half, with a lot of tough defense mixed in.
The Bears jumped in front 7-0 with an eight-play, 80-yard march to open the contest. UMaine converted two third-down situations to set up Treister’s 6-yard scoring toss to Brusko in the right flat.
The Wildcats responded by driving 59 yards on 14 plays with a good run-pass blend. Toman sneaked into the end zone from a yard out as UNH made it 7-7 with 4:38 left in the first quarter.
UMaine survived Ryan Hinds’ interception of Treister on the next possession when Manning missed a 42-yard field-goal try wide to the right with 30 seconds remaining in the quarter.
The Bears eventually capitalized on good field position after taking over at the UNH 43 after a punt late in the second quarter. Treister completed two third-down passes on the drive to help set up the first collegiate field goal by freshman kicker Josh Hesseltine of Old Town.
UMaine’s defense held again, giving the Bears the ball with 2:15 to play. The Bears needed six plays to score as Treister found Landis Williams open down the left hashmark on a 35-yard pass.
The Bears’ momentum eventually suffered after they were whistled for “excessive celebration” and kicked off from their own 15-yard line. Kackert returned the kick 34 yards, giving the hosts the ball on the UM 35 with 54 seconds to play in the half.
The Wildcats chewed up the remaining time and, despite a holding call with five seconds left, got a 42-yard field goal from Manning to get within 17-10 at the break.