Football: UNH-Maine rivalry special for players
Published: Friday, December 13, 2013
Updated: Friday, December 13, 2013 07:12
Prior to this past Saturday afternoon, the UNH football team had not won two FCS playoff games in their program’s history.
“That week in practice, Coach Mac [Sean McDonnell] brought it up,” UNH wide receiver R.J. Harris said. “We were like, ‘Damn, we could really do something special this week.’”
When the Wildcats made team history this weekend by winning their second playoff game of the year, the 41-27 win tasted especially sweet, for it came at Alfond Stadium in Orono, Maine, at the expense of UNH’s biggest rivals, the University of Maine Black Bears.
“It really adds a little more onto it that we can make history like that and win two playoff games, and then being against Maine,” UNH senior defensive end Cody Muller said. Muller had four tackles Saturday.
Since 1903, the Wildcats and Black Bears have battled annually for the Brice-Cowell Musket, a trophy musket that hangs in the locker room of each year’s winning team. UNH holds the regular season record with 50-44-8.
For the Wildcats, the Maine week is almost as important as any playoff game.
“It’s definitely up there,” Muller said. “Definitely one of the top moments for the program. You know making it to the playoffs [is important], everything like that, but Maine’s probably definitely up there with the top.”
Harris, who made six catches for 85 yards on Saturday, remembered the recruiting visit he made to UNH in his senior year of high school. The musket hung on the locker room wall. Harris was impressed.
“Coming as a senior in high school when I came up to visit here, this was one of the main things they stressed, was the musket,” Harris said. “The Brice -Cowell Musket was down in the locker room.”
On the field at Alfond Stadium Saturday, the players reveled in the intensity that came with playing a rival on the road in the playoffs.
“It’s unbelievable. You get goose bumps,” UNH senior wide receiver Justin Mello said. “You look up there you see all the fans cheering against you. … I think everyone kind of likes that. I think it’s what UNH is all about. We don’t get a ton of fans for our home games, so we kind of thrive on other teams not liking us.”
“It was great, you know, to play in front of the big crowd like that,” Muller said. “You know, it was their first [NCAA playoff] home game in their program history. To play that game up there, how much it meant to both teams, and in front of that many fans.”
7,992 fans, to be exact, the majority in Black Bear blue silenced by their team’s loss.
“It’s always fun to be able to quiet the crowd down a little bit,” Muller said. “When we got out there, we heard it from the crowd a little bit, but I think we played hard and we kept it going.”
Since 2004, when the Wildcats took the lead from Maine, they’ve dominated the Black Bears ten games to one.
That one loss still stings for the players’ who were there in Orono on Oct. 2, 2010. The Black Bears won a close game that day, 16-13.
“Probably one of the worst feelings in the world,” Muller said of the loss. “To lose up there, it’s still in my mind. It’s engrained in everybody that was in that game. It’s not what you want at all, especially as a player, you never want to lose but to lose to Maine. It’s just a horrible feeling.”
Harris, who was a redshirt freshman that year and did not play, remembered watching from the sideline, pained.
“It just hurt seeing all the seniors, how devastated they were,” Harris said. “I was like, ‘Damn, I don’t want to have to go through that experience again,’ and that’s when I kind of realized just how serious the rivalry was.”
Each weekend, UNH head coach Sean McDonnell tells his players to think about that week’s game for the 24 hours that follow it. That year in 2010, those 24 hours hurt.
The Sundays that have followed the Maine games since 2010, however, have felt much better, especially after this past weekend’s historic win.
“It was great, to be able to get the win, and then you’re on the bus ride home,” Muller said. “Everybody’s excited, pumped up and to be able to be with. … You know, to be able to enjoy it with the guys.”
Though Muller said this past Saturday’s win meant a lot to him, his personal favorite moment in the rivalry with Maine may have taken place two weeks prior, when the Wildcats held the Black Bear offense to just three points at Cowell Stadium, also known as “The Dungeon” to players and fans.
The Wildcats know their enemies. Mello, who caught five passes for 90 yards and two touchdowns Saturday, has become acquainted with Maine’s defensive backs in the five games he’s played in against Maine. They talk trash on the line, though it’s all in good fun. He and the defenders who cover him razz each other throughout the game.