Maine at New Hampshire
At Cowell Stadium, noon, on Comcast New England.
Last meeting: Maine, 16-13 in overtime, on Oct. 2, 2010
Last week: Maine beat UMass 32-21; New Hampshire lost to Towson 56-42.
Series: New Hampshire leads 47-43-8.
By KEVIN NOONAN
There’s a lot at stake in Saturday’s football game between Maine and New Hampshire. Maine can win the CAA championship and both teams can pretty much clinch berths in the FCS playoffs, and those are two goals every team strives for each season.
But, for these two teams, it’s also about the Musket.
Since the late 1940s, the winner of the annual game between these neighbors and rivals has been awarded the Brice-Cowell Musket, named after two former coaches at the respective schools. What it really means is bragging rights for a year and until Saturday, at least, Maine has them because the Black Bears beat the Wildcats 16-13 in overtime last season.
“It’s pretty simple for us – it’s the Musket, because that has a history to it,’’ said Maine coach Jack Cosgrove, who graduated from Maine in 1978 and has been part of the Black Bears’ coaching staff since 1987.
Both coaches know all about his rivalry, since New Hampshire’s Sean McDonnell also works for his alma mater now. In fact, the two coaches played against each other in the late 1970s, so they understand the importance of this game to their fans and alumni.
“The Musket put a tag on the game, a one-year trophy,’’ McDonnell said. “It got a lot more special when you put something you can carry off the field and have in the locker room for a year and be part of a tradition that’s great, not only for New England college football, but all of college football.”
Maine (6-1, 8-2) and New Hampshire (5-2, 7-3) are two of the best teams in college football, FCS-style, and each appears headed to the post-season. Maine can win the CAA championship if it wins on Saturday and Towson loses to Rhode Island and the Black Bears are also shooting for a first-round bye in the playoffs.
Maine is led by senior QB Warren Smith, who has completed 65 percent of his passes and thrown for 16 touchdowns while intercepted seven times. Smith’s favorite target is junior Maurice McDonald (58 catches, 591 yards, five TDs).
The Black Bears got a boost last week when senior RB Pushaun Brown returned after missing the Towson game with a thigh injury. Brown rushed for 144 yards against UMass and gave the Maine offense some much-needed stability.
Brown has rushed for an average of 96.3 yards per game and 5.0 yards per attempt and scored nine touchdowns, and even though Cosgrove praised the fill-in job done by freshman David Hood, he added “You can’t make up for the experience and toughness and know-how you get from a senior back. [Brown] really played a great game.”
On defense, Maine has junior LB Troy Russell, who was named the CAA defensive player of the week for his game against UMass, when he returned a fumble 60 yards for a touchdown and forced another fumble that was recovered for a TD.
Senior DB Trevor Coston is the leader of the unit. He has five interceptions, tops in the CAA, and 69 tackles. Senior DB Jerron McMillian has 78 tackle and three sacks and senior LB Vinson Givans has 81 tackles.
New Hampshire is led by the top quarterback in the CAA, senior Kevin Decker. He’s completed 71.2 percent of his passes, for 17 TDs and 11 interceptions. He also leads the CAA in total offense, 330.7 yards per game.
The Wildcats’ ground game is led by RB Dontra Peters, who averages 56.8 yards per game and 5.1 yards per rush, and Decker’s top targets are junior Joey Orlando (48 receptions for 595 yards and three TDs) and freshman R.J. Harris (40 receptions for 552 yards and five TDs).
On defense, senior DE Brian McNally leads the CAA in sacks with 7½, junior LB Matt Evans leads the CAA in tackles with 142 and also has two sacks, and junior LB Matt Evans has 111 tackles. And if the game is as close as everyone thinks it will, the Wildcats have one of the CAA’s best kickers, sophomore Mike MacArthur, who has made 13 of 16 attempts this season.
On the other hand, Maine has rallied in the fourth quarter to win three of their games, so the Black Bears also have an edge if the game goes down to the wire.
So, everyone thinks it will be a close game and everyone knows it will be an emotional one.
“I told my kids that this is the biggest rivalry on our schedule,’’ McDonnell said. “And we’re playing for our playoff lives right now.”
That’s why both of these long-time rivals find it fitting that their last regular-season game is against each other and that there is so much at stake for both teams.
“How can you not be excited about playing for the Musket with CAA championship implications and postseason implications all wrapped up into one game?” Cosgrove said. “I don’t that we could have asked for anything better.”
Editor’s note: Want to hear more from writer Kevin Noonan about this storied match-up? In the Bangor, Maine area tune in to WAEI 910 Wednesday at 5:05. Kevin will be discussing the game and CAA football on the Downtown with Rich Kimball show.