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UNH football team has season depending on finale with Maine

The mission is simple for the University of New Hampshire football team. The Wildcats must win their regular season finale on Saturday against Maine to have any chance at extending their FCS playoff appearance streak to 10 straight years, the best current run in the country.

But don’t mistake simple for easy.

“It’s a one-game season for us right now against the best football team we’ve played all year, and our arch rival,” UNH Coach Sean McDonnell said.

The Black Bears (10-1) are ranked fourth in both national polls, they’ve already clinched the Colonial Athletic Association title, they’ve won seven straight, and their only loss came at Northwestern, a school that spent time in the FBS Top 25 this year. UNH may have won nine of the last 10 meetings between these two schools, but six of the last seven games have been decided by seven points or less, and this isn’t the same kind of Maine team the Wildcats have become accustomed to seeing.

“I think the most important thing for everyone to know is this Maine football team is the best team that we have played coming from Orono in a long, long time,” McDonnell said.

UNH (6-4) is ranked No. 21 in the The Sports Network Top 25 and No. 24 in the the FCS Coaches Poll. Even if the Wildcats beat Maine, they will probably need help from other teams, and the selection committee, to earn an at-large bid to the 20-team playoff field, which will be announced on Sunday.

The Black Bears, on the other hand, are a lock to make the playoffs and will be a lock to earn a bye and a top-four seed (which means home field advantage until the semifinals) if they win in Durham on Saturday.

“There ain’t no next one for anybody at the University of New Hampshire because there are no guarantees. Maine has a next one,” McDonnell said. “But knowing what that program is all about, knowing what those kids are all about, this is one is going to be huge for them because they want to get that musket and they want to finish the season on a perfect run here in the league.”

That musket would be the Brice-Cowell Musket, the trophy awarded to the winner in this northern New England border rivalry. And McDonnell is right, the Black Bears are eager to take that musket back to Maine.

“This is our rivalry game and everybody knows the importance of this football game in and around our program,” said Maine Coach Jack Cosgrove, who is one of the finalists for the Eddie Robinson Award, given annually to the top coach in the FCS.

“I think the emphasis on the rivalry has amped up over the last 10 or 12 years,” Cosgrove continued. “It’s become such an important prize, the musket, because both of us would like to have that in the locker room as part of who we are when we show off our programs to recruits and such. So it’s a big football game and it’s a game that, in my opinion, will always have a playoff type atmosphere.”

Since they clinched the conference title and the automatic postseason invitation that comes with it with last Saturday’s 41-0 win against Rhode Island, there’s a chance the Black Bears could let down on Saturday. But Cosgrove doesn’t see that happening.

“I feel like we’re very fortunate to have this game after the previous game because it’s an an attention getter,” Cosgrove said. “Right away I could see (Sunday) with our team meeting, as much as we enjoyed what happened Saturday, they know there’s another important football game to be played this weekend and we’re excited to embrace the whole preparation and all the things that go into playing in this great rivalry.”

McDonnell, for his part, has been using grave terms to ensure his players approach this game with the utmost intensity.

“I told them this week that you’ve got a dash on your tombstone that goes from when you were born until when you die, and there’s also a certain number of years here at the University of New Hampshire, and that dash becomes big or small, however you want to put it, depending on how you finish,” McDonnell said. “So this one for them is huge. It’s an opportunity to keep the musket here in New Hampshire, it’s an opportunity for a possibility to go to the playoffs. … That’s what the legacy of this team will be, how they finish this season, how they finish this week.”

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

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