Sunday, March 9, 2014
By GLENN JORDAN
Maine quarterback Marcus Wasilewski (7) and teammate Daniel Collins (14) celebrate after defeating Rhode Island 41-0 in an NCAA football game in Orono, Maine, Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013. (AP Photo/Michael C. York)
Portland Press Herald
ORONO — There was no surprise in Troy Eastman’s voice following the University of Maine’s 41-0 victory over Rhode Island on Saturday in Orono to clinch the school’s first Colonial Athletic Association title and an automatic NCAA tournament bid.
“We knew this was going to happen,” said the senior linebacker, who stoked his internal fires in part from a preseason poll predicting Maine to finish eighth in the 11-team CAA. Instead, the Black Bears are the only team without a conference loss (7-0) and moved up two spots to No. 4 in both Football Championship Subdivision national polls released Monday.
“That was like a slap in the face,” Eastman said of the low expectation for what has become a 10-1 overall record, the best start in the 121-year history of the Maine football program. “We have a big senior class. We were up here in the summer, working hard, living with each other, eating with each other. This is what we worked for, this is what we wanted, and we knew we were going to get it.”
The Black Bears are almost assured of one of eight byes in the 24-team playoffs, which begin Nov. 30, and submitted bids to the NCAA Monday afternoon to host as many as three December playoff games, something never before seen in Orono.
All nine of Maine’s previous NCAA playoff games have been outside of New England. The Black Bears are 3-3 in first- and second-round games and 0-3 in the quarterfinal round.
The two teams immediately ahead of Maine in last week’s FCS polls — Sam Houston State (8-3) and Fordham (10-1) — both lost Saturday. Unlike the bigger programs in the Football Bowl Subdivision, FCS schools determine a national champion through a playoff system.
Of course, Maine still has one game remaining in the regular season, and against its biggest rival. No. 21 New Hampshire (6-4 overall, 6-2 CAA) has won five of six, is unbeaten at home, and needs a victory Saturday in Durham in order to have a shot at one of the 13 at-large bids to extend a nine-year streak of FCS tournament participation, longest in the country.
“I feel like we’re very fortunate to have this game after (clinching against Rhode Island) because it’s an attention-getter,” said Maine head coach Jack Cosgrove on his regular Monday morning conference call. “Right away I could sense (Sunday) with our team meeting that as much as we enjoyed what happened Saturday, there’s another important football game to be played this weekend.”
The winner of the annual interstate rivalry takes possession of the Brice-Cowell Musket for display in its locker room. The flintlock rifle has resided south of the border for nine of the past 10 years, with Maine’s only victory coming in 2010. The past five meetings have been decided by seven points or fewer.
“This thing has changed a lot over the last 10 or 15 years,” said New Hampshire head coach Sean McDonnell, who, like Cosgrove, played for his alma mater before the musket was added to spice up the rivalry between northern New England’s two most prominent Division I football programs. “With the presentation of that award at the end of the game, it makes the game special, it makes the game meaningful. And, there ain’t no next (game) for anybody from the University of New Hampshire, because there’s no (playoff) guarantee. Maine has a next one.”
Maine’s victory Saturday was its seventh in a row, following a loss at Northwestern of the Big Ten Conference. Against Rhode Island, as was the case in the five games prior, the Black Bears did not lose a fumble or have a pass intercepted. In addition, after giving up eight sacks in the previous two games against Stony Brook and Albany, the Black Bears did not allow quarterback Marcus Wasilewski to be tackled for a loss.
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