Wildcat gridders visit Maine in defining game for program
DURHAM — The University of New Hampshire is playing in the FCS tournament for the 10th consecutive season, but not once in that decade's worth of winning football has Sean McDonnell's team won two games in one playoff season.
The Wildcats look to change that when they take on Maine at Alfond Stadium this afternoon at 2 p.m.
"We want to win two playoff games, which no one in the program has done before," said Seamus O'Neill, a senior left tackle and co-captain out of Manchester Central. "We're not trying to focus on the survival factor, but it's in the back of our minds, especially the seniors, knowing this could be our last game. We don't want it to end right now. We want to set a standard for what UNH football is all about by wining those two playoff games."
There's motivation aplenty on both sidelines.
The common theme is survival. The winner of this game plays the winner of tonight's contest between Sam Houston State and Southeastern Louisiana next week in the quarterfinals.
UNH, which is 8-4 overall, and Maine, 10-2, have each won seven of their last eight games.
Maine's loss in the stretch was to UNH just two Saturday ago. The Wildcats beat the Black Bears, 24-3, in Durham to secure a spot in the tournament.
Maine had already won the Colonial Athletic Association championship outright and was trying to finish with a perfect league mark.
"I think they're definitely going to be coming for revenge," O'Neill said. "They're going to be looking at it like, 'We're a better team than that.'"
The Black Bears have had an outstanding season but are faced with this unsavory prospect: They collect 10 wins overall, win a league title, earn their first home playoff game and then have their season end with two straight losses to their bitter rival.
Maine senior quarterback Marcus Wasilewski credited the UNH defense with covering the Black Bears well and not leaving him much room or time to make throws.
The Wildcat defense sacked Wasilewski five times in that game, forced him to fumble the ball away once and also picked off one of his passes. Before UNH, he had not thrown an interception in six games and Maine had not lost a fumble in four.
The UNH defense will try again to disrupt the plans of the Black Bears and Wasilewski, the first-team quarterback on the all-CAA team.
On the other side of the ball, Andy Vailas, a junior quarterback out of Bedford and Bishop Guertin of Nashua, connected with tight end Jordan Powell for a short touchdown pass in the first quarter against Maine, and sophomore Sean Goldrich had one to Jimmy Giansante in the third period.
Vailas started the Maine game and reinjured his knee late in the first half. Goldrich, who is also dealing with injuries, played the second half.
Goldrich led UNH to a 45-7 first-round win over Lafayette on Saturday in Durham and Vailas stayed on the sidelines.
Goldrich is expected to start again today and Vailas is available, McDonnell said.
The Wildcats had 213 yards rushing and 118 passing two weeks ago against Maine in windy conditions.
Junior running back Nico Steriti carried 18 times for 139 yards against Maine for his third 100-yard game of the season. His 68-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter helped ice the game.
"That's the whole thing with running the football," Steriti said.
"You've just got to keep hacking and keep hacking and keep hacking because that one time something opens up and then you have to take advantage of it and go."
Steriti leads UNH with 163 carries for 72 yards (5.3 yards a carry) and eight touchdowns. Senior Justin Mello has 61 catches for 846 yards and eight scores and junior R.J. Harris has 54 catches for 776 yards and four scores.
Redshirt freshman Dalton Crossan scored on a 17-yard pass from Goldrich last week against Lafayette and then on a 56-yard run.
Mike MacArthur, a senior from North Hampton, kicked one field goal against Maine and had another blocked. He has made 13 of his 16 field goals for the season.
UNH has won 10 of the last 11 games in the series with Maine. The Black Bear win came in overtime in Orono in 2010, 16-13.