LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) – If Maine can pull off the unthinkable and upset Nebraska, Black Bears coach Jack Cosgrove might not need an airplane to make the 1,439-mile trip from Lincoln back to Orono.

“If the best thing ever happened, I would walk back, probably,” Cosgrove said. “I would want to relish that one.”

Cosgrove may or may not be joking about hoofing it home if his Black Bears prevail in Saturday’s odd season-opening matchup.

Division I-AA Maine, with a football program that dates back to 1892, is playing a I-A opponent for only the fourth time. The last time worked out well for the Black Bears of the Atlantic 10 Conference. They won 9-7 at Mississippi State last Sept. 18.

“People want to point to last year and Mississippi State, but I think it’s an entirely different animal,” Cosgrove said. “This (Nebraska) is one of the premier, elite programs in the history of college football.”

Cosgrove said it wasn’t his idea to schedule the Cornhuskers, who are coming off a 5-6 season that was their worst since 1961.

Blake James, Maine’s interim athletics director, set up the game last December with a phone call he made to Nebraska AD Steve Pederson.

James, who handled football scheduling under former AD Patrick Nero, said Maine needs to start lining up a I-A opponent each year to help make its $11 million athletics budget.

Boston College is on the schedule next year.

Nebraska is paying Maine $350,000, but James said the Black Bears are getting more than money out of the deal.

“It’s a great environment – one of the best in college – and for our guys to go and experience that is a plus for our program,” James said.

To compare environments, consider that the Black Bears’ total attendance for five home games last season was 33,729 – not half the 75,000-plus who will be on hand at Memorial Stadium on Saturday night.

Ron Whitcomb, who quarterbacked Maine to its win over Mississippi State, said he and his teammates aren’t coming to Lincoln to just make an appearance.

“I don’t think you have to be lucky to win,” he said. “If we played 10 games against Mississippi State, we wouldn’t win all 10. But we had a game plan for Mississippi State and beat them on the day we played them. Our plan is to try to hang in there against Nebraska.”

Though Maine was 5-6 last season, the year was memorable because of that win over Mississippi State. The Bulldogs committed three turnovers inside the Maine 10-yard line and were shut out after scoring a first-quarter touchdown.

“We found out anything is possible if you work together,” linebacker Jermaine Walker said. “As long as we play team offense and team defense, there is definitely a chance we could beat Nebraska, because that’s what happened last year with Mississippi State.”

Cosgrove said he doesn’t read too much into the win over the Bulldogs.

“One of the things that was pretty helpful with our game at Mississippi State is the fact we were snuggled in there kind of nice between Auburn and LSU on their schedule,” he said. “It was awful impressive for me to look at the schedule that had Auburn, Maine, LSU listed. I’m not sure Mississippi State paid a lot of attention to us.”

If Cosgrove did a double-take when he saw Mississippi State’s schedule with “Maine” printed on it, imagine Maine fans looking at this year’s Black Bear slate. Nebraska, in college football circles, doesn’t quite fit in with the names of the Black Bears’ next three opponents – William Penn, Richmond and Albany.

At a minimum, Cosgrove said, he wants his team to come out of Saturday’s game healthy.

Even midlevel I-A teams have come to Lincoln over the years and had their seasons ruined from having players hurt at the hands of the mighty Huskers.

While beating Nebraska would be mind-boggling, the Black Bears have their sights set on more realistic tasks.

“Winning the Atlantic 10 championship is always our goal,” he said.

AP-ES-08-31-05 1646EDT

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