Going into Saturday’s Battle for the Brice-Cowell Musket, there was more on the line for the Wildcats than an 18th century flintlock rifle. A loss would almost certainly end UNH’s FCS-best streak of 12 straight playoff appearances.
Morgan Ellman’s game-winning 21-yard field goal with seven seconds left propelled the Wildcats to a 24-21 win over the Maine Black Bears in the 105th meeting of the rivalry. The ‘Cats trailed at the half and lost starting quarterback Trevor Knight to an ankle injury in the first quarter. However, the ‘Cats were led to victory, and a 13th straight playoff appearance, by his replacement, senior captain Adam Riese.
“This kid from January ‘til now has been the best leader in our football program. He’s done it vocally and he’s done it by example,” UNH head coach Sean McDonnell said about Riese. “He prepared every day, every game like he was going to be the starter.”
Riese threw for 218 yards, a touchdown and an interception and got a big assist from Dalton Crossan out of the backfield as the senior ran for 163 yards and a touchdown in his final rivalry battle. The performance was Crossan’s third 100-yard rushing game of the season and his best outing since the home opener against Holy Cross when he ran for 199 yards and two touchdowns. Crossan’s 35-yard touchdown run tied the game at 14-14 with 5:31 remaining in the third quarter.
A 28-yard completion from Riese to Kieran Presley sparked the Wildcats’ final drive as the pass put UNH at the Maine 41-yard line. Six carries from Crossan and two pass completions from Riese brought UNH well within Ellman’s range, the sophomore kicker drilled the 21-yard field goal to keep the Musket in Durham for the sixth straight year.
“Today was an example of our guys just believing that, ‘Hey, we’re going to find a way to win the game, we’re going to stick together and do it,’” McDonnell said after the victory. “Our competition against teams like this, year in and year out, make us a little bit stronger.”
Riese’s lone touchdown pass came with 12:22 remaining in the fourth quarter as he found sophomore Neil O’Connor for a 10-yard touchdown to give the Wildcats their first lead of the game, 21-14.
The Black Bears answered with 5:02 remaining to knot the score at 21-21 when senior quarterback Dan Collins threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to Micah Wright on a gutsy fourth down play call.
Collins threw for 202 yards and two touchdowns against the Wildcat defense but also threw two interceptions and struggled completing the ball with a 39.3 completion percentage. UNH freshman safety Pop Lacey snagged his first interception of the season and returned it 44 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter to tie the contest at 7-7. The score was the UNH defense’s seventh touchdown of the season, the most in the FCS in 2016.
The UNH defense was stout all afternoon. Maine freshman running back Josh Mack was held to 77 rushing yards and the Wildcats held the Black Bears to seven second-half points. The ‘Cats finish the regular season with the third-best scoring defense in the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) after allowing an average of 21.8 points per game.
On Sunday morning as they watched the selection show as a team, the Wildcats were ecstatic when it was revealed they were not just in the field, but hosting Lehigh University in the opening round. Lehigh (9-2) was the Patriot League champion this season and is averaging 491.5 yards per game offensively, the seventh-best in the country.
“The biggest thing is the kids and to see their reaction,” McDonnell said after it was announced that the streak was still alive. “You could feel it in that room when it hit, when that name went up on the board. Believe me I feel the same way.”
The Wildcats (7-4) will host the Mountain Hawks on Saturday, Nov. 26 at Wildcat Stadium at 2 p.m. Knight’s status for the game is in question at this time but the Wildcats will be confident regardless of who is under center.
“Nothing changes at all when [Riese] comes into the game,” Crossan said about his senior quarterback. “He’s an unbelievable leader. He’s an unbelievable player and we have all the faith in the world in him.”