Playoff Preview: Black Bears vs. UNH

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last couple of weeks, you know the University of Maine football team will make history on Saturday, as it hosts an NCAA playoff game for the first time in the program’s 121-year existence.  More importantly, the Black Bears have an opportunity to avenge their only CAA and FCS loss of the season, a 24-3 defeat to UNH in their regular season finale back on November 23.  Most importantly, however, the Black Bears are looking for a victory that will advance them to the NCAA quarterfinals for the second time in three seasons.

I always thought the Black Bears (10-2 overall, 7-1 CAA) would exceed expectations this season.  In hindsight, those expectations were ridiculously low, high (low?) lighted by a predicted 8th place CAA finish in the preseason coaches poll.  Having said that, not even the most ardent supporter of Black Bear football could’ve thought the school’s first 10-win season since 2002, a conference championship, the 5th overall seed in the NCAA tournament, and a first round bye would’ve been possible.  However, after Maine’s impressive, never-say-die performance against the Big Ten’s Northwestern in Evansville, Fill The Steins forecasted this Black Bear squad may be on the verge of something special.  Even I couldn’t have imagined how special this season would be.

Now, as we sit on the precipice of Saturday’s historic matchup at the Alfond Sports Stadium (yes, it’ll always be the ASS to me), it’s frankly difficult to focus on all the program’s successes this season.  That’s because the team providing the opposition in Orono is the same UNH team that handed the Bears their only conference loss of the season.  What’s more troubling is that it wasn’t just a loss…the Black Bears looked sloppy, lethargic, and downright disinterested in the battle for the Brice-Cowell Musket.  Yes, there had been stretches in other games this season during which the Black Bears displayed some of these characteristics against inferior opposition, but the UNH matchup was the first time Maine was never really in the game, both on the scoreboard and in between the ears. 

I want to chalk the Bears’ subpar performance in Durham up to the fact they had already raised the CAA conference championship trophy the week prior and they got caught looking ahead to the postseason, but that sounds an awful lot like an excuse instead of a reason.  This year’s team, much like almost all Maine teams in the Jack Cosgrove era, has been built on character, toughness, and mental fortitude.  Those are characteristics that can help a team see its way through a “trap game” and find a way to win.  That didn’t happen on November 23 because, let’s face it, this UNH team is really, really hot right now.  If the Wildcats’ victory over Maine wasn’t proof enough, then one needn’t look any further than to last week’s 45-7 victory over Lafayette in the first round of the NCAA playoffs to see that the Wildcats (8-4 overall, 6-2 CAA) are playing their very best football of the season.  It’s foolish to think they will do anything but provide a more-than-formidable test for the Black Bears on Saturday.

It’s also foolish to think that the Black Bears won’t be ready for such a test.  With two weeks off and a full week to prepare for a very familiar opponent, Coach Cos will have his troops ready to go on Saturday.  They will be fresher, madder, and hungrier than the Wildcats.  They will be approaching this game with a much different frame of mind than the matchup two weeks ago in Durham.  They will make and execute the necessary adjustments to combat UNH’s strengths.  Lest we forget, the Black Bears are, without question, more talented than UNH.  That matters in big games, where big players making big plays is often the difference between winning and losing.  I expect the Maine defense to be more aggressive and QB Marcus Wasilewski to protect the football and play better than he did in the first encounter with the Wildcats.  Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the Black Bears will be playing in Orono, where they are a perfect 5-0 this year.  Home field matters in games like this, and the Black Bears earned it through their tremendous consistency throughout the regular season.

Bottom line, in spite of the momentum in UNH’s favor heading in to Saturday’s game, I expect the Black Bears to find a way to win and advance to the NCAA quarterfinals for the second time in three seasons.  Black Bears 31, Wildcats 23.  In other words, come Saturday night, we plan on filling the steins to a spot in the quarterfinals and filling the steins to revenge, which, like a frosty pint in the tap room at Pat’s, is best served cold.

Share your thoughts on and predictions for Saturday’s game in the comments section below!

Photo courtesy www.goblackbears.com


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