ORONO, Maine — Saturday’s finale against archrival New Hampshire was a microcosm of the season for the University of Maine football team.
The Black Bears forced six turnovers and limited the top-ranked Wildcats to their lowest offensive output of the year on Saturday afternoon, but the offense struggled.
Ultimately, New Hampshire did just enough, putting together a crucial third-quarter scoring drive that helped the Wildcats earn a 20-12 Colonial Athletic Association victory at chilly Alfond Stadium.
New Hampshire (10-1, 8-0 CAA) extended its record-setting in-season win streak to 10 games and secured the No. 1 overall seed for the upcoming Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
Coach Sean McDonnell’s Wildcats earned a first-round bye in the postseason and host a December 6 game in Durham, New Hampshire. They also retained the Brice-Cowell Musket, the spoils of the rivalry.
“We just found a way to win and it’s a great thing for these kids. I’m so proud of them,” said McDonnell, who admitted he never coached a team that committed six turnovers and won before Saturday.
“They did it for 10 weeks in a row and now they’ve got an opportunity to play at home,” he added.
UNH is joined in the 24-team playoff field by CAA members Villanova, James Madison and Richmond.
Coach Jack Cosgrove’s UMaine squad ended the season at 5-6 (4-4 CAA).
“It’s a very disappointing loss for us,” he said. “The guys played hard, we played aggressively, we played physically and I think we created some opportunities for ourselves we didn’t take advantage of.”
The defense shouldered much of the load, limiting New Hampshire to season lows of 20 points and 287 yards with six takeaways, including four interceptions.
Junior quarterback Sean Goldrich completed 14 of 31 passes for 169 yards and one touchdown with three interceptions and was sacked three times. R.J. Harris made five catches for 62 yards, but had some momentum-building grabs on the Wildcats’ second-half scoring drives.
“We definitely did a good job, all aspects of the game — up front, put pressure on them, our secondary made great plays, the D-line got the hands up on batted, tipped balls and made a couple interceptions,” said UMaine junior Trevor Bates of Westbrook.
UMaine mustered little in the way of cohesive offensive, netting only 11 first downs and 179 total yards. The Bears capitalized with points on three of the six turnovers, but twice settled for a field goal.
Freshman QB Drew Belcher (11-for-25, 92 yards) was intercepted on the last possession. He was sacked five times.
“I think it starts with me,” Belcher said of the lackluster offense. “A couple times, I’ve got to give my receivers a chance to make the play, go through my reads a little bit quicker. I was holding onto the ball a little too long.”
Jerickson Fedrick netted 42 yards on six carries to lead the run game.
UMaine was very much within striking distance in the third quarter after Austin Brown intercepted a deflected Goldrich pass and returned it seven yards to the UNH 26. The Bears cut the deficit to 14-6 on Sean Decloux’s 28-yard field goal.
The Wildcats responded with a 15-play, 88-yard march highlighted by clutch, third-down throws of 18 and 29 yards from Goldrich to Harris along the home sideline.
“I thought our defense was outstanding, forced them into situations where they had to make NFL plays on third down and they did,” Cosgrove said. “That’s why they’re the best team in the conference, the best team in the country.”
On fourth-and-goal from the 1, Goldrich scampered around left end for a touchdown. The PAT high the right upright, leaving UNH on top 20-6 with 2:10 to play in the third.
The defense opened the door for the Bears’ last score of the game when linebacker Randy Samuels (5 tackles, 1 sack) stripped the ball from Goldrich and Pat Ricard recovered at the UNH 44.
UMaine, which had not earned a first down since its second possession, found some life on Belcher’s 23-yard completion over the middle to Jeremy Salmon and a 16-yard burst by Fedrick.
Belcher capped the drive with a 1-yard keeper with 6:25 remaining, while Decloux’s missed PAT left the Bears trailing 20-12.
A roughing-the-kicker penalty prolonged UNH’s ensuing drive, which ended with a punt that rolled dead at the 1-yard line with 2:40 to play. UMaine got no further than its 27 as safety Nick Cefalo intercepted Belcher with 1:15 left to put the game away.
UMaine grabbed a 3-0 lead after Cabrinni Goncalves picked off Goldrich on the Wildcats’ first play of the game. The hosts went 45 yards but settled for Decloux’s 45-yard field goal.
UNH put together a nine-play, 54-yard drive, sparked by Goldrich’s 22-yard TD scramble up the gut on a third-and-14 play to give the Wildcats a lead they would not relinquish.
The conversion pass was no good.
UMaine’s Damarr Aultman fumbled the ensuing kickoff and UNH recovered at the 28. However, Nico Steriti was stuffed on a fourth-and-goal run from the 1.
The Bears went three-and-out, opening the door for a 41-yard touchdown bomb from Goldrich to Jimmy Giansante on the next play. Goldrich’s conversion pass to Harris made it 14-3 with 6:57 left in the half.
Chris Mulumba Tshimanga racked up 12 tackles to pace UMaine, while Trevor Bates of Westbrook and Devin Clark had eight each. Goncalves made two interceptions.
Cody Muller’s nine tackles (2 sacks) led UNH while Casey DeAndrade recovered two fumbles.