UNH football opens season with dramatic 24-23 win over rival Maine

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Monitor staff
Friday, September 01, 2017

DURHAM – Season closer or season opener, it doesn’t seem to matter. When New Hampshire meets Maine on the football field, tight games and dramatics usually follow.

The border rivals traded blows all night long in Thursday’s season opener at Wildcat Stadium. Maine staggered the No. 13 Wildcats, but the Black Bears missed a crucial extra point and UNH and its play-making defense held on for a 24-23 decision.

“It’s everything you get in a Maine/New Hampshire football game. Just ups and downs, teams playing hard,” UNH Coach Sean McDonnell said. “Very proud of the way we responded two or three times in the game. We made some plays when we had to make them. It was not the prettiest win we’ve ever had, but it’s 1-0 on Thursday night, got the musket still here in Durham and it’s a great way to start the season.”

New Hampshire has now won eight straight against the Black Bears, but most of those have been a challenge. The last time these two met, in last year’s regular-season finale, New Hampshire kicked the winning field goal with seven seconds on the clock for a 24-21 win. And UNH’s five wins between 2008-12 were all by seven points or less.

“Unbelievable game to be a part of,” Maine Coach Joe Harasymiak said. “It’s got to be one of the best rivalries I’ve ever been a part of and college-football wise, too, I don’t care what level. Just two teams killing each other, battling it out. Every year we’ve done it. Last year, this year have been unbelievable games. Bottom line is we just didn’t make enough plays.”

This time it took an interception from UNH sophomore linebacker Quinlan Dean with 30 seconds left on the clock to seal the win and keep the Brice-Cowell musket – the trophy for this rivalry – in the New Hampshire locker room for another year.

“It’s just excitement, you wouldn’t want it any other way,” UNH linebacker Jared Kuehl (team-high seven tackles) said of the defense being on the field to end the game. “Everybody was all coming together saying, ‘You got this, you got this. We’re good, we’re good.’ That’s the best way you could end a UNH/Maine game.”

Dean’s interception may have been the last one, but it was far from the only big play by the New Hampshire defense. Ryan Sosnak blocked a field goal in the second quarter. Josh Kania tipped a pass that led to a field goal attempt that went wide right in the third quarter. And Rick Ellison picked off Maine quarterback Chris Ferguson (23-for-44, 239 yards, three touchdowns, two interceptions) to slow the Black Bears early in the fourth.

“That interception by Ellison was an unbelievable play,” McDonnell said. “They had gone to a couple similar things and he listened to the coaches on the sideline and did a great job in his drop, went up and got the ball at its highest point and did a hell of a job there. … When you play that team and when you play that program, there’s always going to be moments in the game when you got to rise up and I thought we rose up.”

Finally, before Dean’s deciding interception, Rick Holt sacked Ferguson to put the Black Bears under even more pressure. It was UNH’s only sack of the game.

The Wildcats needed all those defensive momentum swingers on Thursday because the offense was disjointed for most of the night. After gaining 280 yards and scoring 17 points in the first half, UNH picked up just 103 yards in the second half and scored a lone touchdown.

“They got us off track, and that’s what they do,” McDonnell said.

The UNH offense looked good to start, going 68 yards on the opening drive and taking a 7-0 lead when Trevor Knight (18-for-29, 149 yards, two touchdowns, one interception) hit Nick Lorden with a 12-yard touchdown pass. Maine answered with an 80-yard drive on its first possession to tie the score on a 4-yard touchdown pass from Ferguson.

The highlight of the first half was a replay from the Blue-White scrimmage on Aug. 22. Knight threw a long lateral to Neil O’Connor, who lofted a pass to a streaking Malik Love. The trick play was smoother in the scrimmage, but the result was the same when it counted. Love (five catches, 96 yards) hauled in the lofted ball from O’Connor and turned it into a 60-yard score and a 14-7 lead for the Wildcats.

The two teams traded field goals in the second quarter and UNH took a 17-10 lead into halftime. The Black Bears tied the game again with 5:11 left in the third when Ferguson connected with Jaleel Reed on a 33-yard scoring strike.

Knight finally found some rhythm early in the fourth as he led the ’Cats on a 75-yard drive that ended with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Rory Donovan (six catches, 45 yards). Again Maine answered with a touchdown pass from Ferguson, this one to Jason Simonovich on a third-and-goal from the 4, but Kenny Doak missed the PAT, which proved to be the difference in the game.

“Their kids just made more plays,” Maine’s Harasymiak said. “I respect this program the most out of any program we go against. It’s not even close.”