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The Brice-Cowell Musket returns to UMaine

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ORONO - It’s an old flintlock rifle made by a guy named Ebenezer Nutting sometime in the 1700s and named after a couple of coaches who did their best work during the Coolidge administration. It was largely forgotten for decades until Jack Cosgrove made it a thing again during his tenure as boss of the Black Bears. Oh, and it’s spent the better part of the last decade and a half on a shelf in Durham, New Hampshire, providing a tangible reminder to the Wildcats of their domination of the football rivalry with the neighboring state university.

And now, it’s found a new/old home in Orono, after a 35-7 opening night stunner by the Black Bears in the “Thursday Throwdown.”

For the uninitiated, a little info on the University of New Hampshire’s football program. They have become the standard of consistency and success in the Football Championship Subdivision, the tier of college football that sits just below the big boys of the power conferences and light years beyond Division II and III schools. Not only has UNH made it to the playoffs in 14 consecutive years (a best-in-the-nation streak) under coach Sean McDonnell, but they’ve also racked up an impressive seven wins over opponents from the Football Bowl Subdivision. The Wildcats had also completely dominated the Black Bears next door, winning eight straight and 15 of the last 16 matchups.

Until last week.

To close observers, there were indications this year might be different. UNH returned their talented quarterback Trevor Knight, who was named the CAA Preseason Offensive Player of the Year, and a dangerous receiver corps led by Neil O’Connor, who caught 97 passes for 1396 yards last year, but there were questions about both their running game and the offensive line.

Maine fans also had reason to be excited about the Bears’ defense, known as the “Black Hole”, since the entire front seven from last year was back, along with Manny Patterson, a tremendous defensive back who led the nation in pass break-ups last season.

The coaching staff was also optimistic about the offense, with an experienced group of wide receivers, a second-year starter at QB in Chris Ferguson, who demonstrated plenty of growth in the spring and preseason, and great talent and leadership from running back Joe Fitzpatrick and converted QB Drew Belcher at tight end. The unknowns were an offensive line that lost four starters - including Jamil Demby, who was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams - and tailback Ramon Jefferson, a guy who impressed the coaches but had never taken a snap in a collegiate game.

After a scoreless first quarter, it became clear that things were going to be different in this 107th meeting between the two teams. Ferguson was razor sharp, Jefferson ran with power and confidence, the line opened lots of holes and new coordinator Nick Charlton unveiled a game plan that utilized more weapons than fans were used to seeing. Reverses, jet sweeps and a reverse pass were all part of the arsenal that kept the Wildcats on their heels. The Maine defense was not only good but better than advertised, as Sterling Sheffield picked up two early sacks and the veteran QB Knight was knocked out of the game. Maine took a 22-0 lead into the locker room at halftime and never looked back.

Save for one brief moment when New Hampshire connected on a 62-yard touchdown pass - the only completion of the second half - it was a domination of the Cats seldom seen since Maine shut them out way back in 1976. Six sacks for the Black Hole and UNH was held to -15 rushing yards and just 123 in the air. Maine’s offense put together a perfectly balanced attack as Ferguson went 21-31 with 199 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, while they got a combined 165 rushing yards from the Jefferson-Fitzpatrick tandem.

It was an upset that thrilled the opening night crowd of nearly 7000 (even without students on campus) and shocked the ranks of FCS football, since New Hampshire had entered the game ranked seventh in the nation. The victory demonstrated the tremendous preparation of coach Joe Harasymiak and coordinators Charlton and Corey Hetherman.

The road now beckons for Maine and it’s no easy one. Two FBS opponents in Western Kentucky and Central Michigan, as well as a visit to the Yale Bowl against the preseason favorites in the Ivy League. After that, it’s back home to face Villanova, another team picked to make the 24-team post-season field. With just four home games and seven road trips, the schedule is the most daunting in Maine history, but the dominating victory over UNH is evidence that this team may be very special.

The next few weeks may show us that this team has what it takes to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2013 … and they have an 18th century rifle sitting in a case in Orono to remind and inspire them.

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