Maine-New Hampshire matchup no mere opening act

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(STATS) - Upper New England's most storied football rivalry is taking a break from tradition. When it comes to recent history, Joe Harasymiak is hoping more change is about to take place.

Normally played in the frostier conditions of late November, New Hampshire and Maine's annual battle for the Bryce-Cowell Musket gets a more serene backdrop Thursday night at UNH's Wildcat Stadium in a rare season-opening showdown between the backyard foes and CAA Football members.

Though the weather may be far less harsh than usual, the intensity and importance of a game both schools consider among the biggest on the schedule don't figure to diminish one bit.

"The first game is always an exciting one for everybody," New Hampshire coach Sean McDonnell said. "It adds to the excitement having it be Maine."

Harasymiak's Black Bears have likely had their calendars circled for this one since the CAA released its conference slate. In what was in essence a de facto play-in game for a postseason berth, the Wildcats dealt Maine a gut-wrenching 24-21 loss in Orono in last year's regular-season finale on a field goal with seven seconds left.

"It's been a lot of motivation for the offseason, through the summer, and it's all culminating on Thursday night," said Harasymiak, whose head coaching debut spurred the Black Bears to a 6-5 record and 5-3 mark in CAA play - both significant improvements from the previous season.

Beating New Hampshire, the owner of the FCS' longest active playoff streak at 13 consecutive years, remains an obstacle. Maine has lost 14 of the series' last 15 meetings, including seven straight counting a home defeat in the 2013 FCS playoffs. The 31-year-old Harasymiak was in high school the last time the Black Bears left Durham victorious in 2001.

"They've had our number," Harasymiak remarked. "We've talked a lot about disciplined football against this team because they're so well-coached, and we've got to make plays when it matters."

Maine returns 15 starters from last year's near-playoff entrant, though two of them - All-CAA wide receiver Micah Wright and defensive end Uchonna Egwuonwu - have been suspended indefinitely by the university for an alleged conduct code violation. And the Black Bears will be going in green at the quarterback position with redshirt freshman Chris Ferguson coming out on top in the competition to replace third-team all-conference honoree Dan Collins.

Harasymiak, for one, isn't overly concerned about his new signal-caller's lack of experience.

"We're confident in Chris. He's a great leader. He's got something about him that we really like," he said. "He's really taken over the offense and really done a nice job, and the guys are motivated by it."

It won't take long for the coaches to know what they have in the 19-year-old. A veteran UNH secondary headlined by a pair of sophomore standouts in cornerback Prince Smith Jr., the 2016 CAA Defensive Rookie of the Year, and safety Pop Lacey looms as the first of several early season challenges. Maine's next two conference games also come on the road against defending FCS champion James Madison and nationally ranked Villanova, sandwiched around a payday trip to Central Florida.

New Hampshire, ranked 13th in the preseason STATS FCS Top 25, has some holes to fill as well after graduating a few cornerstone players from last year's squad which finished 8-5 (6-2 CAA) and reached the playoffs' second round. Among McDonnell's chief concerns is replacing three experienced offensive linemen as well as do-it-all running back Dalton Crossan (1,281 rushing yards, 42 receptions, 14 total TDs), who rushed for 163 yards in last year's matchup.

Senior Trevon Bryant was to fill Crossan's shoes until suffering a season-ending knee injury in the spring, leaving sophomore Evan Gray and senior Donald Goodrich atop the depth chart. The duo combined for just 27 carries and 113 yards in 2016.

The offense does return dual-threat quarterback Trevor Knight and the quality receiver trio of Neil O'Connor (58 receptions, 834 yds, 6 TDs), Malik Love (59 receptions, 520 yards) and Rory Donovan, while tackles Rick Holt and Ryan Sosnak anchor what should be a stout defensive line.

Like Harasymiak, McDonnell is eager to see how his team responds to an immediate test from a talented and determined opponent.

"It's a game that right out of the gate will have an impact on how your season goes," McDonnell said. "For the last however many years, we've played this game at the end of the year and mostly every one of those games had playoff ramifications some way, somehow for either team or for both teams.

"I'm not expecting anything less from Maine but a strong, physical, fly-around team that has shown up every year that we've played them."