DURHAM — The University of New Hampshire defense came up big in more ways than one during Saturday’s 28-10 triumph over the University of Maine.
Not only did UNH hold Maine to its lowest point total of the season, the Wildcats also received a defensive touchdown and another TD from a player who typically lines up on the defensive side of the ball.
UNH defensive end Gunnar Gibson entered the game as a tight end and caught a 2-yard TD pass from quarterback Max Brosmer that helped the Wildcats take a 21-10 lead with 1:48 to play, and then 12 seconds later cornerback Prince Smith scooped up a fumble and returned it 30 yards for the game’s final touchdown.
“We sometimes put in a couple special packages whether I’m at tight end or at fullback,” Gibson said. “We didn’t run that play in practice a lot, but it worked out well in the game.”
UNH’s first TD was also set up by a fumble on Maine’s first play from scrimmage. Three plays later UNH’s running back Dylan Laube opened the scoring when he found the end zone on a 35-yard screen pass.
“We shot ourselves in the football with a couple turnovers in the red zone, but each time we did that the defense found a way to have our back and make sure it didn’t lead to points the other way,” UNH interim head coach Ricky Santos said.
UNH receiver Malik Love caught 11 passes for 115 yards, and safety Evan Horn led the defense with 11 tackles and two sacks. UNH’s other TD came on Evan Gray’s 4-yard run in the second quarter.
The loss ended Maine’s four-game winning streak and likely erased any hopes the Black Bears (6-6, 4-4 CAA) had of making the FCS playoff. UNH (6-5, 5-3 CAA) kept its slim chance of qualifying for the playoffs alive. The 24-team playoff field will be announced today.
Santos did his best to lobby for an at-large berth.
“With that win I think we’re a team that could make some noise in the tournament,” he said.
Maine averaged 36.5 points per contest during its four-game winning streak, but true freshman QB Joe Fagnano was limited to 183 yards passing — the fewest in any of his six starts this year. Maine was 2 of 11 on third down.
The Black Bears, who fumbled the ball away three times in the loss, started three possessions in the second half inside their 2-yard line.
“We didn’t play very well across the board, specifically on offense,” Maine coach Nick Charlton said. “We have to play better in big moments. We’ve been doing that recently. We did not do that today.
“I just thought they tackled and covered well. When we tried to take shots (deep) down field, they tried to limit that. They just didn’t give up the big play. In big moments in that game we didn’t come up with the play and they did. Ultimately that’s really what it was.”
Maine scored on a 16-yard pass from Fagnano to wide receiver Earnest Edwards, and a 45-yard field goal by Kenny Doak that trimmed UNH’s lead to 14-10 with 7:55 to play.
Edwards entered the game ranked first among FCS players in kick-return yards, third in all-purpose yards and seventh in receiving yards. He caught four passes for 60 yards Saturday and passed Nashua High School graduate Sergio Hebra to become Maine’s all-time receiving leader (2,641 yards). His TD catch gave him at least one touchdown in 17 of his last 18 games.
“Earnest Edwards is as good a playmaker as you’re gonna find, but our guys found a way to keep him in check all day,” Santos said. “I think it started up front. We did a good job getting pressure. Then on the back end I thought we did a good job disguising coverage.
“The defensive effort all year has been outstanding, but I think they took it to another level tonight.”