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It’s UNH vs. Maine again, and this time the loser goes home for the season

DURHAM – College football teams usually don’t play each other twice in one season, but that’s exactly what’s happening today when No. 15/15 New Hampshire travels to No. 10/8 Maine for a second-round FCS playoff matchup.

UNH (8-4) beat the Black Bears (10-2) just two weeks ago, 24-3, in the regular-season finale in Durham. Not only did that win ensure UNH a 10th straight playoff berth, it was also its 10th win in 11 games against Maine. The border rivalry comes with a trophy, the Brice-Cowell musket, but it won’t be making the trip for this game.

“It’s right down in the locker room where it belongs right now. We won that one,” UNH Coach Sean McDonnell said. “This one is for a lot different type of marbles.”

In the Nov. 23 meeting between these two, UNH sacked Maine quarterback Marcus Wasilewski five times, held the Black Bears to 3-for-15 on third down, and limited them to 95 yards rushing, well below their season average of 176.2. It was the only conference loss of the season for the Black Bears, who are eager for some redemption.

“It’s definitely a blessing because we got smacked around a little bit and you don’t get a chance to really play that same team again twice in one season, so it’s definitely something we’re looking forward to,” Maine running back Rickey Stevens said.

The New Hampshire offense had its own struggles against Maine two weeks ago as the Wildcats held only slim margins in both total yards (331-315) and first downs (16-15). What sparked UNH were big plays at critical moments. A successful fake punt helped the Wildcats to their first touchdown, a strip-sack set them up for their second, and a 68-yard run from Nico Steriti, who had 139 yards on 18 carries for the game, resulted in the third touchdown.

New Hampshire also won the turnover battle, 2-0, and committed just one penalty. McDonnell is naturally hoping for that same type of mistake-free performance today.

“The team that plays the hardest and the team that makes less mistakes is going to win this football game,” McDonnell said. “It’s a blah blah blah statement, but at the same time that’s what I really believe.”

There’s no doubt the Wildcats played extremely hard two weeks ago. Just ask Maine.

“I feel like the last game they came ready to play, and we got to do a better job of that this week,” Stevens said.

While the Black Bears had plenty of motivation during the game in Durham – the musket, a top playoff seed – they had already clinched the CAA title and the automatic postseason bid that goes with it, so they weren’t fighting for a playoff spot like UNH. This time around, it’s win or go home for both teams.

Those stakes will likely provide the Black Bears with an extra bit of inspiration, but who knows how they will respond to the pressure. The ’Cats, on the other hand, have been playing on the edge ever since their 1-3 start and have been facing must-win games since dropping to 4-4 after a loss on Nov. 2 at William & Mary.

“It’s very impressive to see how they’ve responded knowing that they really had to win out,” Maine Coach Jack Cosgrove said. “And the way they did it was against some great opponents. … Those are things I’m really certain have elevated their level of confidence.”

The Wildcats also have some experience with the rare collegiate rematch, although the memories aren’t exactly good ones. New Hampshire played Massachusetts twice in the 2006 season, losing against the Minutemen in both the regular season and playoffs, and faced Villanova twice in 2009, winning in the regular season but losing in the playoffs.

“We’re 0-2 (in rematches), so whatever we did wasn’t working,” McDonnell said.

The coach will try to learn from those experiences, but he also said he’ll call on some friends in the NFL who have to play teams twice in one season. Chip Kelly, the former UNH assistant who is now the head coach in Philadelphia, is very likely at the top of that list. Cosgrove doesn’t have that type of resource, but he said he was texting former Maine player Mike DeVito, now a defensive lineman for Kansas City, to pick his brain about playing teams twice.

Chances are good both UNH and Maine will add some wrinkles and make some adjustments for this second meeting, but chances are also good there won’t be wholesale changes for either team.

“It’s definitely unusual, but we’ve got to approach it like it’s our first time playing them,” UNH safety Nick Cefalo said. “We’re going to go about it the same way we did a couple weeks ago. Hard work, stick to our game plan and that’s about it.”

“We’re not changing personnel, we’re not changing schemes, and I don’t think New Hampshire is,” Cosgrove said. “If you get this far, you’ve got to rely on the people, the plans, the game plans, etcetera, that you’ve used to this point.”

NOTES

∎ UNH is coming off a 45-7 first-round win against Lafayette. The Black Bears, who are the fifth seed in the tournament, had a bye last week.

∎ This will be the first home playoff game in Maine football history.

∎ The last, and only, time New Hampshire and Maine played twice in the same season was 1903. The Black Bears won both of those games.

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at tosullivan@cmonitor.com or 369-3341 or on Twittter @timosullivan20.)

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