ORONO — The University of Maine has yet to begin classes. And for that, Manny Patterson is thankful.
Patterson, you see, is a junior cornerback — the shutdown cornerback — on the Black Bears football team. He has something else on his mind these days — Maine opens its season at 7 p.m. Thursday against rival New Hampshire at Alfond Stadium.
“I wouldn’t have been able to focus,” Patterson said.
He’s not the only one. A season opener is always highly anticipated. But when it involves a rival that has beaten you eight consecutive times and 15 of the last 16, the game becomes far larger. The two met last year in the season opener with the Wildcats winning, 24-23.
“There’s a lot on the line,” Maine coach Joe Harasymiak said. “It’s a (Colonial Athletic Association) game. It’s the (Brice-Cowell) musket. It’s the first game of the year. It’s big time.
“Every game we play has an impact on the season. But this one, because it’s your college rival, it’s more.”
This is the 107th meeting between the teams, the seventh time they meet in a season opener. It will likely be the last time the teams meet in an opener. The CAA, with input from its coaches and athletic directors, has revised its scheduling policy to ensure that traditional rivalry games — such as Maine vs. UNH — are played on the last weekend of the regular season.
“Unless there’s some scheduling quirk, we’ll build the schedule around those traditional rivalry games,” said Brian Gordon, the CAA associate commissioner of football.
Sean McDonnell, in his 20th season as head coach of the Wildcats, understands what Harasymiak is talking about. His team is ranked in the preseason top 10 in both Football Championship Subdivision preseason polls. Yet, when you play your rival in the first game of the season, he knows anything can happen.
“I think it elevates the attention,” McDonnell said. “You’re playing Maine, for the musket, on the first day of college football. You can’t ask for anything better. … I know we are going to have to be at our best when we show up.”
The two teams play for the Brice-Cowell musket, a trophy named after former coaches in the rivalry (Fred Brice of Maine and William Cowell of UNH). It has been presented to the winner each year since the late 1940s. Maine players say it has been too long since the musket has hung in the Maine locker room.
“This is my last one, my last go-round,” senior linebacker Sterling Sheffield said of playing UNH. “We have got to go out and get this W.”
Sheffield doesn’t hesitate to call this “the biggest game of my career, not just my career, but all of our careers.”
The Black Bears, coming off a disappointing 4-6 season bookended by one-point losses to CAA playoff teams New Hampshire and Stony Brook, see this game as chance to move in the right direction. Following the opener, Maine has three consecutive road games, two at larger Football Bowl Subdivision schools Western Kentucky and Central Michigan, the other at defending Ivy League champion Yale.
“This game sets the tone for us for the entire season,” said senior right offensive tackle Cody Levy. “Our No. 1 goal, as a team, as a program, is to beat New Hampshire. We do that, it just sets us on the right foot, sets the tone for what we can do, puts us in the right direction.”
“It’s a new year, a new team,” said sophomore quarterback Chris Ferguson, who made his college debut against the Wildcats last year (completing 23 of 44 passes for 239 yards and three touchdowns). “This is a chance for us to come out and set the tone. We’ll see who we are as a team and who we can be.”
So how do the Black Bears end New Hampshire’s dominance? To a man, they talk about discipline. Especially late in the game.
Last year was a minefield of late-game blunders by the Black Bears, caused by what Harasymiak calls a lack of discipline at key moments. Penalties were a huge factor — Maine had the most penalty yards per game (86.4) in the CAA last year. And it all started in the opening 24-23 loss to New Hampshire.
While everyone remembers the two missed field goals and missed PAT kick, Maine also had 10 penalties for 90 yards in the game, at least two of them coming against the defense on third down to keep UNH scoring drives alive.
Sheffield said discipline has been a major topic the entire offseason.
“We’ve got to be able to finish, to step up,” he said. “Whether that’s in the fourth quarter, or with two minutes left in the first half, we’ve got to be consistent on every play and play every single second of the game.”
“We’ve got to be stay disciplined,”Patterson said . “And we’ve got to play all four quarters, not let up.”
Harasymiak, in his third year as Maine’s head coach, believes his team has taken steps to eliminate its late-game breakdowns.
“I really like our potential,” he said. “Year three is hopefully a time when you start to see the culture you’re trying to build develop and come out. I think we’re at that point, I think our guys are believing in the right things. I think they’re being accountable.”
And to illustrate that point, this is the first opener under Harasymiak where the Black Bears don’t have any players suspended for off-field activities. In 2016, two players were suspended. Last year, there were five.
“Hopefully that shows me and the staff that our message is being heard and that there are no shortcuts,” he said. “They’ve been accountable and believing what we’re telling them.”
Sheffield said the Black Bears face a great challenge in playing New Hampshire. But he added that they have already faced great adversity. On July 24, freshman defensive back Darius Minor died during a summer workout. It was later determined he died of a heart condition. The team grieved together and has grown, with senior safety Jeff DeVaughn delivering a healing speech at the private memorial service for Minor.
“Darius was a great guy, I loved him,” Sheffield said. “But we’ve dealt with an adversity that a lot of teams haven’t had to deal with. And just being able to come together and see everyone at their weakest, that has really brought us together.
“Jeff stepping up at the memorial like he did has helped this team in ways that people don’t even know.”
And a victory over New Hampshire will lift the Black Bears higher than they’ve been in a while.
“This game is everything,” Ferguson said. “I think it really decides how our season goes. If we beat them, it’s huge for the team and, more important, gets us on a roll. To get a ‘1’ in the win column is huge.”