DURHAM – Niko Kvietkus, a grad student defensive tackle and captain of the University of New Hampshire football team, could barely bear to watch.
UNH’s comeback season had come down to this: The Wildcats trailed Rhode Island by four points with 23 seconds to play and the offense had the ball with a fourth-and-9 yards from the Rhode Island 26-yard line.
Sophomore quarterback Max Brosmer and the offense had a couple of options. They could look to pick up the first down and get off another play or two.
Or . . . Head coach Rick Santos and offensive coordinator Brian Scott had seen something on a previous play and brought it to Brosmer’s attention. They thought a “field hole-shot,” a high risk, high reward pattern that calls for the ball to be thrown behind a cornerback and just out of the reach of a safety, would be open.
NH high school football:Timberlane rallies from 14-point fourth quarter deficit, stuns Exeter in quarters
Freshman receiver D.J. Linkins raced down the left side towards the end zone. Brosmer took the shotgun snap and lofted the ball towards him.
“That was insane,” Kvietkus said maybe 40 minutes after the game. “It still hasn’t hit me yet. Right before the ball was snapped, I had my eyes closed. I’m not a religious man but I was praying like crazy.”
Linkins came down with the ball for the score with 17 seconds to go and after the Wildcats survived a scare the other way when Rhode Island quarterback Kasim Hill had his own last-second pass in the end zone denied, UNH had itself a must-win 31-28 victory.
“Clutch players make clutch plays in clutch moments, that’s what it comes down to,” Kvietkus said.
Now all the No. 18 Wildcats need are a few more clutch plays in another must-win moment.
They improved their record to 7-3 overall and 6-1 in the Colonial Athletic Association with the victory.
UNH can capture a share of its first CAA title since 2014 – and much more - with a win Saturday at noon in a Border Battle clash against bitter rival Maine in Orono.
The Wildcats are aiming to nail the trifecta, Santos said.
“The guys know,” he said. “We’re not going to shy away from it. They’re a mature group. They’ve played a lot of football. We laid it out for them. The trifecta is up for grabs. We can win a ring. We can go back to the playoffs. And we can go get that musket and put it back in our locker room where we believe it should rightfully be laying.”
More football coverage:Portsmouth grad Bushman talks on being on top of the women's football world
UNH goes into the weekend tied with Richmond and William & Mary at 7-1 in the league. William & Mary plays at Richmond on Saturday at noon.
If UNH wins, it will share the CAA title with the winner of William & Mary and Richmond. As far as the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA FCS Division I tournament goes, Richmond will get it with a win Saturday because it beat UNH, 40-34, on Nov. 5.
If William & Mary and UNH both finish 7-1 in the league, the auto bid will go to the second tiebreaker in the CAA, which is points differential against conference teams. The Tribe currently leads that number by six points, so UNH would need to beat Maine by seven more points than William & Mary beat Richmond.
Eight wins is widely considered the magic number for CAA teams to get a bid into the 24-team FCS playoffs. If the Wildcats get to eight wins and also own a share of the CAA championship, they should be a lock for the tournament.
UNH last played in the tournament in 2017, ending a remarkable 14-year run of appearances under former coach Sean McDonnell that ranks as the second-longest consecutive streak behind Montana’s 19 (1993-2009).
The draw for the tournament will be announced on Sunday at 12:30 p.m. in an NCAA Selection Show on ESPNU.
If the Wildcats finish 7-4, they will hope things fall their way in other FCS results around the nation and that the selection committee looks kindly on their wins over ranked teams Elon and Rhode Island and picks them for an at-large berth.
The Brice-Cowell Musket
Maine is UNH’s longest-standing rival and the series dates to 1903 when the Wildcats dropped a pair of games, 18-0 on Sept. 26 at Maine, and 27-0 on Sept. 24 at home.
The Brice-Cowell Musket, named after former UNH coach William Cowell and former Maine coach Fred Brice, has been awarded to the winner of the series since the late 1940s and resides in the locker room of the winning team.
The Black Bears possess the musket at the moment. They beat UNH, 33-20, on Nov. 20 last year for their first win in Durham after nine straight losses dating to 2001.
“If you’re going to play college football and have a rivalry and have a trophy at the end, it’s one of the best things ever,” said junior linebacker Ryan Toscano. “To lose that trophy and have to wait a full year to try and get it back is a tough feeling.”
The Black Bears played a role in ending UNH’s playoff streak the last time the teams played in Orono.
The teams opened the 2018 season against each other on Aug. 30 and Maine won, 35-7, snapping an eight-game UNH win streak in the series. The Wildcats lost starting quarterback Trevor Knight to injury on the game and went from there to lose their first four games and finish at 4-7.
The Black Bears have a 2-8 overall record and 2-5 mark in the CAA and are much better than their record indicates.
“I don’t look at them as a 2-8 team,” Santos. “They’ve lost five games by 10 points or less, four by four points or less, a couple by one or two points.”
Two weeks ago, Maine lost at Rhode Island, 26-22, and last week lost, 23-21, when the Great Danes scored with no time left on the clock.
Often, UNH-Maine games have gone down to the wire. In 2016, UNH won 24-21 at Orono and the next year the Wildcats won 24-23 at home.
Maine sophomore quarterback Joe Fagnano has completed 192 of his 332 passes (57.8 percent) for 2,029 yards with 14 touchdowns and six interceptions.
Montigo Moss has six touchdown catches and Shawn Bowman five.
Brosmer has completed 210 of his 237 passes (64.2 percent) for 2,317 yards with 19 touchdowns and five picks.
Redshirt freshman Joey Corcoran leads UNH with 46 catches for 537 yards and three scores. Grad transfer Heron Maurisseau had 13 catches, five for TDs. Linkins has 10 catches, four for touchdowns.
Junior Dylan Laube has 810 rushing yards with nine rushing touchdowns, one TD reception and has also scored on a 92-yard punt return and 100-yard kick return.
Redshirt freshman Nick Mazzie went three-for-three in field goals for the second time this season against Rhode Island. He’s made nine of his 10 field goal attempts and 32 of his 33 conversion kicks.
Toscano leads the team in tackles with 45 and junior safety Max Oxendine is right behind with 44.
Junior defensive end Dylan Ruiz had a quarterback sack against URI that forced a fumble and is up to 10 sacks for the season. Junior defensive end Josiah Silver has 8.5 sacks and 14 tackles for a loss.
This article originally appeared on Portsmouth Herald: UNH football has eyes on Colonial Athletic Association championship