DURHAM — Junior safety Evan Horn paced the University of New Hampshire’s standout defensive effort that resulted in Saturday’s 28-10 triumph over the University of Maine in the Battle for the Brice-Cowell Musket in Wildcat Stadium.
Then Horn led the charge to get the musket itself back in Wildcat hands, too.
The whistles had barely sounded to end the game when Horn and his mates on defense headed to the Maine sidelines to reclaim the coveted trophy that had been in Black Bear custody for the last 15 months.
UNH closed out a perfect 5-0 season at home and the musket is back in the Jim ‘Red’ Hayes Locker Room in the UNH Field House and all is right with Wildcat Nation.
Yes, it would have been nice to sneak back into the NCAA FCS Division I tournament when the 24-team field for the event was announced early on Sunday afternoon, but that was not to be. UNH came up just short and was one of the last four teams considered but not picked — along with Colonial Athletic Association rival Towson, South Carolina State and Southern Illinois — according to the chair of the selection committee.
The Wildcats put themselves back in the running and discussion for the playoffs with Saturday’s impressive performance.
“Just really proud of the guys, especially the seniors, finding a way to compete and go out like that and getting the musket back to where it rightfully belongs,” said interim head coach Ricky Santos. “The defensive effort all year has been outstanding, but I think they took it to another level today.”
UNH finished with a winning record at 6-5 and earned a share of third place in the Colonial Athletic Association at 5-3. Villanova was also 5-3 in the league. James Madison at 8-0 and Albany at 6-2 owned the first two spots in the league.
Then there’s the musket, that resides in the locker room of the winning team each season.
Maine had held it since beating UNH, 35-7, in last season’s opener in Orono.
“It’s a very special moment for our whole team,” said senior receiver Malik Love of getting the cherished rifle back. “Coach harped on it all week about how big this game was, from the freshmen to the seniors. It was a very inspirational moment to get (the musket) back.”
The Black Bears have not held onto the musket for more than one year at a time since 2002. The Wildcats have won the regular season game in the series in 16 of the last 18 meetings.
As it has most of the season, the defense led the way.
Maine’s true freshman quarterback, Joe Fagnano, took over as starting quarterback when Chris Ferguson went down with an injury in the team’s sixth game. He led the Black Bears to four straight wins and they were looking to earn their own spot in the playoffs. UNH knocked those plans awry.
Maine finished with a 6-6 overall record and 4-4 mark in the league. The Black Bears had scored an average of 38 points in each of their last five games and had scored at least 17 points in each of their games.
They managed little against a UNH defense that came up with three fumble recoveries, including one Prince Smith Jr. returned 30 yards for the last score of the game with 1:36 left in the fourth quarter.
In addition, sophomore Gunner Gibson, who plays defensive end as his regular assignment, lined up as a receiver in a goal line package and caught a 4-yard TD pass from freshman quarterback Max Brosmer to put a tight game out of reach with 1:48 left in the fourth quarter.
The defense held Maine to 313 total yards, its lowest total of the season, and well under its average of 400 yards.
“The last two weeks we haven’t played up to our standards,” Horn said. “We tackled well and created more fumbles in this game than I think we did all year.”
The Wildcats had recovered three opponent fumbles all year coming into the game and two of those came last week in a 24-17 loss at Albany. They doubled the season total with three more Saturday.
“We made some plays, got some turnovers,” said defensive coordinator John Lyons. “I think our kids were really focused and dialed in. It shows. That’s how you’ve got to play all the time. We had some good ones and then we had some we let slip away. I thought the kids really did a great job today.”
The good ones included a shutout second half and 28-20 win against a Villanova team that is in the playoffs and home wins over Elon, 26-10, Duquesne, 23-6, and Rhode Island, 27-24. There was a 20-14 win at then No. 22 Stony Brook and a tough 13-10 loss at Holy Cross in the season opening game.
The level of the opponent and the rivalry made this one nice, too.
“Maine’s a very good offensive team,” Lyons said. “They have some very good skill players. They have a very good scheme. They do a really good job getting the ball to their guys who can make plays. We’ve been playing hard all year, but sometimes we’re not always as disciplined and we don’t execute the way we should, but I thought we did today.”
It was a great way for seniors such as cornerbacks Isiah Perkins and Smith, along with defensive end Josh Kania and linebackers Cam Brusko and Michael Balsamo, along with safety and captain Pop Lacey, who missed the last half of the season with a foot injury, to go out.
“I really, really am happy for them because this meant so much, particularly after the whipping we took last year from them,” Lyons said. “I thought our guys really responded. They were really dialed in. They really understood what we were doing.”