December 7, 2013

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: UNH ends magical run for Black Bears in NCAA playoffs

Wildcats beat Maine in 1st playoff game at Orono

By Glenn Jordan gjordan@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

ORONO — Here, finally, was their moment.

click image to enlarge

New Hampshire quarterback Sean Goldrich (5) scrambles past Maine defensive lineman Patrick Ricard (44) during the first half of an NCAA football playoff game, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013, in Orono, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

Trailing by a touchdown with plenty of time left in the fourth quarter and a raucous crowd rocking Alfond Stadium in the first NCAA playoff football game ever played at the University of Maine, the Black Bears had rival New Hampshire reeling, facing the prospect of a punt from its own end zone.

Didn’t happen.

Sean Goldrich threw a strike for 15 yards to elusive wide receiver R.J. Harris and New Hampshire was on its way to a clinching touchdown drive. The Wildcats beat fifth-seeded Maine 41-27 Saturday before a season-high crowd of 7,992 in the second round of the Football Championship Subdivision tournament.

The Black Bears, champions of the Colonial Athletic Association for the first time, ended their season with a record of 10-3, losing to their border rival for the second time after losing in the regular-season finale, 24-3, and for 11th time in their past 12 meetings.

New Hampshire (9-4) advanced to the quarterfinals against the winner of Saturday night’s game between Sam Houston State and fourth-seeded Southeastern Louisiana.

“My hat’s off to New Hampshire,” said Maine Coach Jack Cosgrove. “Once again they played better and coached better than we did. I thought our guys played hard, played tough, were undisciplined at times and with that (UNH) offense, it cost us a little bit in some situations.”

Time and again, Goldrich slipped away from an apparent sack or Harris danced free from a defensive back, or Nico Steriti broke a tackle at the line of scrimmage for a big gain.

The Wildcats, who beat Maine 24-3 at home to earn an at-large tournament bid, again showed a deep bag of tricks that included several direct snaps to Steriti (one of them through the legs of Goldrich), a reverse on a kickoff return and a 24-yard pass from Steriti in a short-yardage situation after he faked a plunge into the middle of the line.

The Black Bears led only once, when Damarr Aultman returned a kickoff 88 yards for a touchdown and Sean Decloux added the PAT kick to make it 7-3 late in the first quarter.

Within two minutes, New Hampshire answered. Following a loss of 10 yards on a sack by Cabrinni Goncalves and Devin Clark, Goldrich connected with Justin Mello on a deep comeback route.

One juke following the catch set Mello on the way to a 57-yard touchdown to give New Hampshire the lead for good.

“We missed some tackles,” Cosgrove said. “Some of that is, I guess, a lack of discipline. That’s the best way to say it.”

Even so, the Black Bears hung around. Quarterback Marcus Wasilewski (71 yards rushing, 21 of 39 passing for 229 yards and two touchdowns) engineered scoring drives on either side of intermission.

His 9-yard completion to John Ebeling helped make it 20-17 at the break.

The second of two short Decloux field goals, from 28 yards, made it 27-20 late in the third.

From there, Maine’s defense forced consecutive punts. The Black Bears moved the chains during two possessions, but converted only one third down (finishing 3 of 13 overall in such situations) and failed to produce a tying touchdown.

“That’s basically what it came down to,” said Wasilewski, who was intercepted twice in the second quarter. “We had some great drives and then at the end, we weren’t able to get the final push.”

A sack by Goncalves and a Goldrich incompletion left New Hampshire on its own 10 facing third-and-13 against a loud home crowd sensing a shift in momentum. But Harris found a bubble in Maine’s pass coverage and Goldrich didn’t miss.

“We practiced that all week,” Goldrich said. “Fortunately enough they were in the exact defense we wanted them to be, so I just went inside out, found R.J. in the hole, and tried to get him the ball.”

“Broke our backs,” Cosgrove said. “That was a big-time throw and catch; it really was.”

Six more plays, all on first or second down, continued what would be an 87-yard scoring drive capped by Chris Setian’s 12-yard touchdown run.

New Hampshire led 34-20 with less than seven minutes remaining.

Another Setian touchdown run, of 7 yards, made it 41-20 with less than three minutes left.

Wasilewski led one final scoring drive, connecting with senior tight end Justin Perillo for his only two catches of the day, the second good for 18 yards and a touchdown with 21 seconds remaining.

At 41-27, Decloux’s onside kick attempt was fielded by Mello, who broke through Maine’s initial line of defense and saw a clear path to the end zone, but opted instead to drop to his knee rather than run toward the end zone.

“Great atmosphere to play football in,” said New Hampshire Coach Sean McDonnell, whose team reached the postseason for a 10th year in a row, best in the nation. “I can’t tell you enough what it’s like to have a Maine-New Hampshire football game in December. Everything about it was awesome.”

The loss brought an emotional end to the collegiate careers of a Maine senior class that arrived on campus in 2009, reached the national quarterfinals in 2011 and at 10-1 this year, got off to the best start in the program’s 121 years.

The nearly 8,000 who showed their appreciation on a clear but bitterly cold day in December did not go unnoticed.

“To walk out there and see that kind of support when it’s, I don’t even know how cold it is out,” Wasilewski said of temperatures that dropped into the 20s in the second half and a wind-chill factor that made it seem even colder.

“To have that kind of support, to have that energy from students, parents, alumni, whoever you want to say was there (Saturday), they showed up. That was the loudest we can ever remember it here.

“To look back as a senior, and I think I can speak for all the seniors here, to remember that as our last game at home, with that kind of crowd, with that kind of atmosphere, is really something to cherish.”

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