Win or go home: UMaine, UNH clash Saturday in NCAA football playoffs

University of Maine staff members prepare Morse Field at Alfond Stadium on Wednesday for Saturday's NCAA football playoff game in Orono against the University of New Hampshire.
Courtesy of University of Maine
University of Maine staff members prepare Morse Field at Alfond Stadium on Wednesday for Saturday's NCAA football playoff game in Orono against the University of New Hampshire.
Posted Dec. 06, 2013, at 1:28 p.m.

ORONO, Maine — It’s the playoffs, and the University of Maine football team is facing off against its most respected rival, the University of New Hampshire.

The two Colonial Athletic Association teams will meet for the 102nd time on Saturday, this time in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. With the game at 2 p.m., UMaine and UNH are playing for the right to advance to the national quarterfinals.

“Now you’ve got to step it up and respond, or you go home,” said UMaine head coach Jack Cosgrove.

A large crowd is expected at the 8,500-seat Alfond Stadium, where the eighth-ranked Black Bears and the No. 15 Wildcats square off for the second time in two weeks. UNH won 24-3 at the Nov. 23 meeting in Durham, N.H.

UMaine, which is 5-0 at home this season, is counting on the continued support of its fans and students.

“The campus as a whole has done a good job of trying to make our home games more of a game-day atmosphere,” said senior offensive tackle Joe Hook.

“They’ve done a great job of promoting it, and we’ve gotten a lot more support than in past years,” he added.

Laura Reed, UMaine’s assistant athletic director for public relations, said Friday that approximately 5,500 tickets had been sold. New Hampshire requested 400 for its fans, who also may purchase them online.

UMaine has already distributed 550 student tickets, and Reed explained most are usually given out on game day.

Saturday’s weather forecast is calling for partly sunny skies with temperatures in the low- to mid-30s and a west-northwest wind at 12-15 mph.

“You’ve got to be Maine tough,” Hook said of the fans’ mentality.

UMaine is looking for any edge it can find against New Hampshire, which has won three straight and 10 of the last 11 meetings. The Wildcats, who are in the postseason for the 10th consecutive year, were 6-0 at home this season but only 2-4 on the road.

UMaine, the No. 5 national seed, is coming off a first-round bye, while UNH handled Lafayette 45-7 in its first-round home game a week ago.

This time around, the Black Bears need to make a few adjustments and execute better than they did at UNH, where they were held without a touchdown, turned the ball over twice and quarterback Marcus Wasilewski was sacked five times.

“When you get this far, you’ve got to rely on the people, the game plans, that you’ve used to this point, then trust the fact that those involved will perform to the level that they need to,” Cosgrove said.

Perhaps the biggest improvement UMaine must make is to run the ball more effectively. The Bears scratched out only 95 yards on 25 attempts, and 60 of those yards came on one Rickey Stevens run.

“We haven’t started fast enough up front,” said UMaine offensive line coach Jeff Ambrosie. “We need to have more production early [in series] to allow us to do what we want to do late.”

UMaine’s run game features senior tailback Stevens (116 carries, 692 yards, 6 touchdowns), sophomore tailback Nigel Jones (129-577-8) and Wasilewski (141-461-3). Ambrosie said being able to get four or five yards consistently will help provide the needed balance.

“We’ve just got to do a better job of executing; little things here and there, a missed block here or a missed assignment there,” Stevens said. “We’ve just got to play with more discipline.”

Wasilewski has enjoyed a record-setting season, throwing for 3,009 yards and 23 TDs on 255-for-370 accuracy (69 percent). He has been intercepted seven times.

His receiver corps is paced by senior wideouts Derrick Johnson (59 receptions, 603 yards., 2 TDs), John Ebeling (58-634-5) and junior WR Damarr Aultman (41-511-5), along with senior tight end Justin Perillo (37-461-3).

The Black Bears encounter a surging UNH defense that not only shut down the run in the first meeting but held UMaine to 3-for-15 efficiency on third down and kept pressure on Wasilewski.

“They disrupted our guys and the pass routes,” Cosgrove said. “They’ve had 15 sacks in the last two games. That’s impressive.”

The Wildcats are led by junior linebacker Shane McNeely (96 tackles, 5 1/2 sacks, 2 interceptions), sophomore LB Akil Anderson (91 tackles, 5 sacks) and senior strong safety Manny Asam (76 tackles).

Like the offense, UMaine’s defense also is focusing on the run. UNH netted 213 rushing yards at Durham, including 68 on a scoring jaunt by junior running back Nico Steriti.

Steriti (163 carries, 872 yards, 8 TDs) sets the tone for a versatile Wildcats offense that also includes senior Chris Setian (71-377-5). UNH has utilized two quarterbacks in sophomore Sean Goldrich (105-for-176, 1,392 yards, 11 TDs, 4 INTs), who has been dealing with a sore knee and played against Lafayette, and junior Andy Vailas (130-for-218, 1,397 yds, 9 TDs, 5 INTs).

The top targets are senior WR Justin Mello (61-846-8) and junior wideout R.J. Harris (54-776-5).

UMaine will try to contain that versatile UNH attack with a veteran unit that has been spearheaded by freshman linebacker Chris Mulumba (105 tackles, 2 INTs), sophomore LB Cabrinni Goncalves (89 tackles), senior LB Troy Eastman (70 tackles, 2 INTs) and sophomore defensive end Trevor Bates of Westbrook (52 tackles).

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