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New Hampshire at Maine, 2 p.m.

Black Bears, Wildcats renew rivalry in FCS playoffs

Maine’s Marcus Wasilewski was 27-of-43 passing and sacked five times in a 24-3 loss to UNH two weeks ago.

photo courtesy of the university of maine

Maine’s Marcus Wasilewski was 27-of-43 passing and sacked five times in a 24-3 loss to UNH two weeks ago.

Their fierce, century-old rivalry has been waged through wind, rain, sleet and snow, through the Yankee Conference years, the Atlantic-10, and now the Colonial Athletic Association.

Annually, the treasured trophy to the victor is a framed 18th century flintlock rifle with a 43-inch barrel — courtesy of Falmouth, Maine native Ebenezer Nutting — the Brice-Cowell Musket paying homage to two early coaching legends.

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The hate is reserved for one day. The other 364, there is mutual respect in the border battle. And that starts with alums Jack Cosgrove (Maine/quarterback, Class of ’78) and Sean McDonnell (New Hampshire/defensive back, 1978), who have each returned to proudly lead their programs with passion, unwavering determination, and success.

The 102d meeting in Orono Saturday afternoon at 2, in the second round of the FCS playoffs, however, will be like no other.

You see, the 101st edition was waged just two weeks ago, with the host Wildcats locking up their postseason berth with a commanding 24-3 win in Durham while handing then-fourth-ranked Maine its first conference loss of the season.

“We did not feel too good coming off the field that day,” said Marcus Wasilewski, Maine’s magnificent senior quarterback who was sacked five times in a 27-of-43, one-interception effort by UNH’s vastly improved defense.

With a bye, the 10th-ranked Black Bears (10-2) have had 13 days to ponder that defeat, their 10th in the last 11 meetings against UNH. Making its 10th consecutive postseason appearance, 15th-ranked New Hampshire (8-4) made quick work of Lafayette (45-7) in last week’s playoff opener.

“It’s the same team, the same feel, but we have to treat it as a new game,” said Wasilewski. “It’s a new season for us, an opportunity to get some redemption.”

As his coach noted, it’s a “very unique situation.”

“We’re really playing them in consecutive matches,” said Cosgrove, who texted one of his former standouts, Kansas City defensive tackle Mike DeVito, asking how the Chiefs prepped for playing the Broncos twice in a three-week span.

After a 35-21 loss at Northwestern in Week 4, his Black Bears had rattled off seven straight wins before their trip to Durham.

“[UNH] beat us soundly, so that raised the level of intensity and importance,” said the coach. “It was a real slap in the face, so we had to digest that.”

New Hampshire has essentially been in playoff mode since a 44-28 loss at Towson on the first Saturday in October left the Wildcats, at 1-3, searching for answers.

“We were making mistakes and giving up long plays,” said McDonnell, noting his defense could not get off the field in losses to Central Michigan and Lehigh. “Once we started figuring that out, and stopped turning the ball over, it helped us become a better football team.”

A few choice words from captains Manny Asam, Seamus O’Neill, and Chris Setian, in a closed-door meeting, certainly did not hurt, either.

“We wanted to make sure that everyone was on the same page,” said Asam, a 6-foot, 187-pound all-conference safety who prepped at Worcester Academy.

“Right after that we had one of our best practices of the year.”

McDonnell said, “Can we win the next day? Can we win the next game? That was the focus in practice. The captains were tremendous. In that meeting, they said what was going on was unacceptable.”

His ’Cats responded with a 59-19 ramming of Rhode Island, followed by a 1-point win over Villanova.

Asam has been the glue guy in a secondary that features junior Nick Cefalo, a pair of sophomores in Hayden Knudson and Lamar Edmonds, and redshirt freshman Casey DeAndrade, a former standout at East Bridgewater who led the CAA in pass breakups. With senior ends Jay Colbert and Cody Muller applying the heat, UNH has racked up 15 sacks the past two weeks.

“You really have to avoid third and long against them,” said Wasilewski. The Black Bears converted just three of 15 third-down attempts two weeks ago against UNH.

“You have to do a good job of commanding first down. They are really in synch back there.”

McDonnell calls Wasilewski (23 TD passes, 68.9 percent completion rate) a “hell of a football player.” “He makes plays when they aren’t there. He directs all the traffic . . . he has such as presence about him.

“If they hang onto to the football and we hang onto the football, it’s going to be an unbelievable game.”

Because his Black Bears are essentially getting a second chance, Cosgrove said, “we’re excited as heck.”

And moreso because they are hosting a playoff game for the first time at Alfond Stadium. “There is a lot of football talk in a hockey town, which is really refreshing,” he said. “I love hockey, but . . . ”

And according to Wasilewski, as Cosgrove told his charges, “this is UNH, this is a playoff game, and this is our house.”

Craig Larson can be reached at clarson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeLars.
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