ORONO, Maine — The University of Maine football team has already locked up a Football Championship Subdivision playoff spot.
That doesn’t mean the Black Bears don’t have plenty of incentive to win Saturday’s regular-season finale at New Hampshire.
Eleventh-ranked UMaine can claim a share of the Colonial Athletic Association championship and — with a Towson loss at Rhode Island — could claim the league’s NCAA automatic berth.
If that wasn’t enough, coach Jack Cosgrove’s team (8-2, 6-1 CAA) is playing its longstanding New England rival for the right to hold onto the Brice-Cowell Musket that goes to the winner of the game.
With No. 12 New Hampshire (7-3, 5-2 CAA) trying to solidify its playoff hopes, it should make for a dramatic contest at Cowell Stadium in Durham, N.H.
“We’ve been able to play for the musket, but we’ve never been able to say it was for the championship on top of it,” Cosgrove said. “There’s a lot of positives to it if you are successful.”
There is plenty of motivation Saturday for the Black Bears. Cosgrove said his players remained motivated and focused, even though they know they will be playing football after Thanksgiving this season.
“It’s been very businesslike,” Cosgrove said. “You sense a greater attention to detail in the meetings and at practice. Things seem to be crisper by our scouts and by all our players in terms of their performance.”
UMaine will find out its playoff pairing during Sunday’s NCAA selection show at 10 a.m. on ESPNU.
Cosgrove has attempted to simplify the game for UMaine by making it about retaining the Brice-Cowell Musket, a flintlock rifle made by Ebenezer Nutting of Falmouth between 1722 and 1745.
It is named to honor former UMaine coach Fred Brice and longtime UNH coach William Cowell. The 43-inch barrel is rifled to a .65 caliber.
UMaine took the musket from its perch above the football locker room for Friday’s trip to Durham and purchases a hotel room to house it the night before the game.
New Hampshire, which is bidding to make its eighth straight FCS playoff appearance, also is celebrating “Senior Day” for 15 players.
“They don’t want it (their playoff fate) to be in somebody else’s hands, which makes that eighth win important,” Cosgrove said of the Wildcats.
“They’re our greatest rival, not just in recruiting but in everything they do,” he added. “They are a school that we know better than any other school in this league and they are truly deserving of more accolades than they’re getting.”
The UMaine defense expects to have its hands full against a UNH team that ranks first in CAA total offense (452.4 yards per game) and pass offense (289.3 ypg) and third in scoring offense (33.9 ppg).
The Bears, led by senior safeties Jerron McMillian (78 tackles) and Trevor Coston (69 tackles, 5 interceptions) and senior linebacker Vinson Givans (81 tackles) will try to contain a passing attack that features the CAA’s most productive quarterback.
Senior Kevin Decker has completed 228 of 320 passes (71 percent) good for 2,869 yards and a league-best 17 touchdowns. He has been intercepted 11 times.
Decker also has rushed for 438 yards.
“Because he has the ball in his hands so much, he’s the most challenging guy in the conference to defend,” Cosgrove said. “When something breaks down, that’s when he’s most dangerous.”
UNH’s top receiving threats include Joey Orlando (48 receptions, 595 yds., 3 TDs) and R.J. Harris (40-552-5). The Wildcats’ ground game is sparked by tailback Dontra Peters (112 carries, 568 yds., 7 TDs), who also is dangerous on kick returns.
UMaine will attempt to minimize the Wildcats’ effectiveness by keeping its own offense on the field and putting points on the scoreboard.
The Bears have been sporadic of late, but with senior tailback Pushaun Brown (173-867-9) having regained some of his health, they hope to be able to run the ball effectively to set up the play-action pass.
UMaine faces a youthful UNH defense that ranks last in the CAA in total defense (440.4 ypg), rushing defense (181.1 ypg), passing defense (259.3 ypg) and scoring defense (32.6 ppg).
The Wildcats feature the league’s leading tackler in junior linebacker Matt Evans, who has 142 stops, including 79 solos. Safety Chris Beranger has piled up 111 tackles and LB Alan Buzbee has made 66.
They’ll attempt to contain Bears senior QB Warren Smith (214-for-329, 2,443 yds., 16 TDs, 7 INTs.), whose favorite receivers include sophomore tight end Justin Perillo (38-383-3), senior slot man Derek Session (30-348-2) and redshirt freshman wideout Art Williams (26-370-2).
UMaine ranks fourth in CAA total offense (375.6 ypg), including fourth in passing (244.3 ypg), and is fourth in scoring (29.7 ppg) but is only 10th in rushing (131.3 ypg).
The Bears must continue their trend of limiting their own turnovers, forcing some by the opponent and minimizing penalties. They also need to prevent UNH from hitting long scoring plays that can energize the Huskies and their home crowd.