ORONO, Maine — Nobody is going to admit it, but it couldn’t be a much more challenging matchup this week for the University of Maine football team.
Coach Jack Cosgrove’s 10-2 Black Bears, the Colonial Athletic Association champions, are gearing up for the first home playoff game in the program’s 121-year history.
The opponent for Saturday’s 2 p.m. Football Championship Subdivision second-round contest is one with which UMaine is painfully familiar — the University of New Hampshire.
“We’re in a very unique situation, first time ever for me,” Cosgrove said of facing an opponent for the second time in the same season. “Our last football game was against New Hampshire, so we’re really playing them in consecutive matches.”
New Hampshire (8-4) posted a thorough 24-3 victory over the Black Bears in the teams’ regular-season finale Nov. 23 at Durham, N.H.
UMaine, which earned the No. 5 national seed in the 24-team playoff field, also claimed a first-round bye. That enabled the Bears’ players to return home for Thanksgiving for a three-day break before a workout Sunday night in the Mahaney Dome.
“There’s definitely already a level of excitement up here with a game being played up here in Maine in the playoffs,” said senior tailback Rickey Stevens. “To be able to play against our rival again is definitely something that we’re excited about. It’s definitely a blessing.”
UNH earned its way into the final 16 with a resounding 45-7 home win over Lafayette on Saturday. The reward is a trip to Orono.
Wildcats coach Sean McDonnell said that dynamic is a bit of a double-edged sword.
“You know where you’re going,” he said. “You know the facility, you know the locker room.”
McDonnell doesn’t expect that is going to provide much consolation as far as the game is concerned.
“The bad thing is, you’re playing a hell of a football team at home when they’re 5-0,” he added. “There’s a lot of other places I’d rather be going than to play a really good football team like Maine in Orono.”
Rickey Stevens pointed out that regardless of the site, the weather or the size of the crowd, Saturday’s game has to be won between the lines.
Cosgrove said UMaine is well aware it must put forth a much more complete effort to have a chance to beat a UNH squad that is making its 10th consecutive postseason appearance. The Bears hope to have learned from their shortcomings in the first meeting.
“We didn’t play well, and they really took it to us, obviously, by the score and how they played and executed,” he said.
The Wildcats have won 10 of the last 11 games against the Bears dating back to 2003. But don’t expect McDonnell and UNH to get complacent.
“[We’re going] to get ready for a team that is a hell of a football team that we executed against last time but [one] I feel’s going to be a major story difference when we get up there to Orono,” he said.
McDonnell mentioned that UNH has played a team two times in a season twice previously. Both times, the Wildcats dropped the second game.
“I’m sure Jack’s going to change [strategy] a little bit, and I’m sure his kids will be ready for this one — not that they weren’t ready for the first one — but they’ll be ready,” he added.
The Black Bears have re-established Morse Field at Alfond Stadium as their turf this fall. They are unbeaten at home after going 1-4 in Orono last season.
“That’s something we’re proud of,” Cosgrove said of the 5-0 home record.
“After you get smacked around like we did last year at home, you really need to address that,” he added. “We responded well. As the season got going, we saw better crowds and a healthier level of anticipation for the games.”
Among the challenges of playing at home is making sure the players remain focused on the game despite the distraction of being around friends and family the night before the game.
Cosgrove praised the continued efforts of UMaine’s athletic department in trying to enhance the game-day atmosphere this year. The average attendance in 2013 has been 5,644 fans.
UMaine is hoping for a much larger turnout on Saturday, especially since New Hampshire fans have only a three-hour drive to catch the game in person.
“This is tournament time,” Cosgrove said. “This is what you play for. Way back in August, that discussion you have is about being a champion and playing football in December and both of those things have happened. Now, you’ve got to step it up and respond, or you go home.”
McDonnell said he did not know whether the Brice-Cowell Musket, the trophy that goes to the annual winner of the UMaine-UNH football rivalry, will be up for grabs in the playoff game.
“Me and Jack may have to meet at a rest area on [Interstate] 95 to make that decision,” he quipped.
Advance tickets for Saturday’s game are $15 for chair-back seats, $10 for adult bench seats and $8 for youth, senior and UMaine staff tickets. Groups of 20 or more can purchase tickets for $5 each.
Game-day prices increase to $20, $15 and $10, respectively. For more information, call 581-2327 or visit GoBlackBearsTickets.com.