DURHAM, N.H. – Redshirt freshmen Nico Steriti (Toms River, N.J.) and R.J. Harris (Odenton, Md.) combined for 373 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns to steal the Senior Day spotlight as the 12th-ranked University of New Hampshire football team rallied past No. 11 Maine, 30-27, before a crowd of 8,536 at Cowell Stadium on Saturday.
In capturing the 99th all-time meeting between the CAA rivals, the Wildcats (8-3, 6-2 CAA) reclaimed the cherished Brice-Cowell Musket for the eighth time in nine years and likely punched their ticket to the NCAA Division I Football Championship tournament for a nation-leading eighth consecutive season.
Maine (8-3, 6-2) saw its opportunity to claim a share of the CAA championship go by the wayside, but the Black Bears should also qualify for the NCAA postseason.
Steriti, who made his first career start at running back in place of injured Dontra Peters (Annapolis, Md.), rushed for 150 yards on 21 carries, returned a kickoff 71 yards and totaled 237 all-purpose yards –all career highs. Harris tallied six catches for 106 yards, his fourth 100-yard receiving game of the season, and two touchdowns.
New Hampshire turned a four-point deficit into a 10-point lead within 15 seconds of the fourth quarter courtesy of two forced turnovers and subsequent TDs. Kevin Decker (Armonk, N.Y.) found Harris from five yards out with 13:41 left to stake the 'Cats to their first lead, 23-20. The go-ahead score was set up by the second interception of the game from cornerback Chris Houston (Harrisburg, Pa./five tackles), who picked a pass from Warren Smith and returned it 11 yards to Maine's 18. Steriti carried four straight times, gaining 13 yards to the Maine 5 before Harris was the recipient of Decker's third scoring pass of the game and league-leading 20th of the season.
On the ensuing kickoff, Steven Thames (Fort Washington, Md./two tackles) knocked the ball loose from Maine return man Kendall James, and Manny Asam (Bloomfield, N.J./five tackles) pounced on the loose ball on the Black Bears' 18. Steriti wasted no time streaking in for the 18-yard TD with 13:26 left, putting UNH in front, 30-20.
Decker finished the game 16-for-30 for 203 yards with three TDs and three INTs.
Smith (24-for-41, 200 yards, TD, 3 INT/eight rushes-38 yards, TD) connected with Damarr Aultman (12 catches-105 yards, TD) for a 10-yard touchdown that sliced UNH's lead to 30-27 with 9:23 remaining, but Chad Wilkes (Cheraw, S.C.) sealed the win for UNH by notching his first career interception on Smith's desperation 4th-and-16 heave at the Wildcats' 45 with 1:09 left.
Maine capitalized on an interception to take a 7-0 lead with 10:22 left in the first quarter. Two plays after Troy Russell's pick gave the Black Bears possession at UNH's 36, Pushaun Brown (20 rushes-77 yards, TD) burst free for a 33-yard score.
UNH squared the game at 7-7 when Decker hit Harris in stride down the left sideline for a 34-yard TD on a 4th-and-8 pass with 7:42 remaining in the first.
The lead swung back to Maine, 14-7, with 56 seconds left in the opening stanza when Smith carried in from two yards out.
Brian Harvey's 41-yard field goal upped Maine's advantage to 17-7 with 6:23 left in the first half.
Mike MacArthur (North Hampton, N.H.) drew the Wildcats within 17-10 by kicking a 32-yard field goal with 18 seconds left before halftime.
Early in the second half, a Steriti 56-yard rush coupled with a personal foul penalty put the ball on Maine's 11. On 2nd-and-9 from the 10, Decker threw to Jimmy Giansante (Jefferson Hills, Pa./one catch-10 yards-TD) in the left flat, and the redshirt freshman receiver followed his blockers into the end zone. The PAT failed, allowing Maine to maintain a 17-16 lead with 11:19 left in the third.
Harvey's 21-yard field goal with 2:29 left in the third built the Bears' lead back to 20-16.
UNH will gather for the 2011 NCAA Division I Football Championship Selection Show, which will air live beginning at 10 a.m. on Sunday morning, Nov. 20, on ESPNU. Fans can learn more by visiting www.unhwildcats.com, Twitter.com/UNHAthletics and Facebook.com/UNHWildcats.