ORONO, Maine — It's that time of year when the focus of New England college football once again centers on Maine and New Hampshire.
The University of Maine Black Bears will play host in the latest installment of the Brice-Cowell Musket Game on Saturday. Besides beating its rival, the New Hampshire Wildcats, there is a lot on the line when the two teams take the field,
UNH comes into the final game of the regular season with a 7-3 record and a chance to clinch at least a share of the Colonial Athletic Association title. The Wildcats have won 14 conference championships, the first in 1947 and the last in 2014.
This means the Black Bears, who are coming into the game with a 2-8 record, have two things to play for: the musket and the opportunity to keep their rival out of the playoffs.
The Brice-Cowell Musket was named after former Maine coach Fred Brice and former UNH coach William Cowell. The trophy began being presented to the winner of the regular-season matchup in the late 1940s.
Both teams have new head coaches this season, but neither coach is new to the rivalry.
Rick Santos and Jordan Stevens played in Durham and Orono, respectfully, before climbing the coaching ranks and taking the helm at their old schools this season. Santos never lost to the Black Bears, while Stevens never beat the Wildcats in his playing days.
“I feel fortunate, and I think our players do and everyone here to be part of a rivalry trophy game," Stevens said during the conference's weekly press conference.
It was clear during the few minutes of speaking with reporters that both coaches cherished their time playing for the musket, but they both stated they have a lot of work to do this week to get their players ready.
Last year, UNH lost 33-20 at home to Maine, and Santos reminded everyone of that loss after talking about his favorite memories of playing in the rivalry.
“But for us, I mean, no time to get nostalgic," Santos said. "I’m thinking about last year, and they flat out kicked our butts in the second half and embarrassed us and ran across the field hoisting the musket. So, I mean, we gotta look at what’s happened to us lately, and right now, they’re the better football team.”
The former Wildcat quarterback also complimented Maine's current QB. Redshirt sophomore Joe Fagnano has thrown for 2,029 yards in ten games for the Black Bears this season. He's added 14 touchdowns and six interceptions.
“I think [Fagnano has] moxie; I think he has courage back there," Santos said. "He’s a tough young man, he hangs in the pocket, but I think he’s also sneaky athletic. He doesn’t scramble to run; he scrambles with his eyes down the field and those are the quarterbacks that are the most dangerous.”
On the other sideline, Max Brosmer has been having an impressive season for the Wildcats. The sophomore quarterback has thrown for 2,317 yards thus far, with 19 touchdowns and five picks.
Stevens complimented the Wildcats' offense and said the team is complete on both sides of the ball, offense and defense, and on special teams. UNH is a top team in almost all special teams categories this year.
“I think they’re outstanding on defense. They’re sound, they’re tough, they fly around, they got a great culture there," Stevens said. “A lot of respect for New Hampshire and the work they’ve done and continue to do.”
If you take a snapshot of this rivalry in recent years, it's been a little unusual. Both programs have hit a few seasons of rough patches and the musket game was moved from its usual spot as the last game of the year to the first game of the year in 2017 and 2018.
But in 2022, the game has moved to its rightful spot: the final week of the season.
“However the season's going, at the end of the year you have something to play for," Stevens added.
In typical football coach fashion, both Stevens and Santos didn't want to get too far ahead in talking about the importance of winning this year. To be fair, there are still 60 minutes of football to be played.
“I think it’s easy to get ahead of yourself. It’s easy to start thinking about things that are outside of our control," Santos said about the playoff and conference implications if UNH wins.
It's been a few years since at least one team in this rivalry game has had a chance to make the postseason, which adds an extra layer to a game that already means a lot regardless of each team's record.
Stevens said seeing the rivalry as a player, an assistant coach, and a member of the Maine community has shown him how special of a game this is every year.
“All those things make it what college football should be: a competitive game with pride, with state pride, with university pride behind it," he added. "So, I’m anticipating a great environment here on Saturday.”
The 110th battle for the Brice-Cowell Musket kicks off at 12 p.m. in Orono.
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