DURHAM — It’s the missing piece.
For most of Sean McDonnell’s tenure as head coach of the University of New Hampshire football team, the Brice-Cowell Musket has held down a prominent spot in the team’s locker in the Field House, a daily reminder of success in the series against the school’s most bitter rival.
The University of Maine has had the musket for nearly 15 months. This weekend, the Black Bears will bring the rifle in its case down from Orono and will have it on their sidelines.
UNH and Maine duke it out Saturday at 1 p.m. at Wildcat Stadium and the musket’s home for the next year is in the balance.
The Wildcats are 5-5 overall and 4-3 in the Colonial Athletic Association and playing to ensure a winning record for the season, to send their seniors out on a positive note and, of course, for the musket.
They had hoped to have more on the line, too, but a 17-10 loss at UAlbany last Saturday dealt a major blow to the team’s chances of qualifying for the NCAA FCS Division I tournament. Any playoff hopes now are slim.
Maine is 6-5 overall and also 4-3 in the league and feels a win should be enough to earn an at-large spot in the 24-team playoffs.
“I think the motivation in this game kind of takes care of itself,” said interim head coach Ricky Santos, who took over the team when McDonnell announced in late August that he was taking a leave of absence to deal with health issues. “The seniors know how important this game is for this program. It’s trying to educate the younger guys of the importance. We feel like there’s a piece missing in the locker room with the Brice-Cowell Musket.”
Named after former coaches Fred Brice of Maine and William Cowell of New Hampshire, the musket is a flintlock rifle made by Ebenezer Nutting of Falmouth, Maine, somewhere between 1722 and 1745.
It was first presented to the winner of the regular-season matchup between the two teams in the late 1940s.
Maine took possession of the musket with a 35-7 win over UNH in last year’s season opening game in Orono on Aug. 30.
This has been only the second year the musket has spent in Orono since 2003.
Maine’s last win in the series before last August was a 16-13 result on Oct. 2, 2010.
UNH took the musket back with a 30-27 win in Durham on Oct. 19, 2011.
The goal Saturday is to make sure the gun’s stay in Maine is another short one.
Defensive end Robbie Schumacher, a senior out of Hopewell Junction, N.Y., said the significance of the game became evident the first time he experienced the contest as a true freshman in 2015.
“I think it really hit me when we saw all the joy on all the seniors and upperclassmen’s faces when we won it my freshman year,” he said. “It was just fantastic. Everyone was so ecstatic. Everyone was so happy. It was a really great thing to be part of. I think that really cemented what this rivalry means to this program.”
Senior offensive tackle Jeff Carter, who’s from Vermont, didn’t take long to get a feel for the Maine game either.
“This rivalry has meant a lot to me,” Carter said. “There are three teams that I don’t particularly like (JMU and Dartmouth are the others, by the way), but Maine tops all three of them.”
Last year’s loss didn’t help matters.
“We got embarrassed, really,” Carter said. “This game is not only for coach Mac, not only to end our season possibly, but also because of last year. They took the musket, which is a huge, important thing for us to get back.”
The Wildcats know the task is tough.
The Black Bears had a rough start to the season and now are one of the hottest teams in the country.
They were 2-5 overall and 0-3 in the CAA after a 59-44 loss to Liberty on Oct. 19.
Junior quarterback Chris Ferguson was injured in a loss to Richmond the week before that.
True freshman Joe Fagnano took his place and has rallied Maine to four straight wins, including a fierce comeback over Rhode Island last week. He’s thrown for 16 touchdowns with three interceptions in his five starts and Maine has scored at least 31 points in each of the games.
“We’re viewing it as all or nothing,” Schumacher said. “This is it. This is the big one. This is what the season comes down to. Everything goes into this.”
Possibly our last game. We hope not. We really want to go out with a bang. Especially against Maine.”