AMHERST - University of Massachusetts coach Don Brown stood alone on the sideline by the 30-yard line, surveying the scene with a sense of calm satisfaction. This time there was no churning in his gut.
Brown looked out at his team running out the clock on a convincing 27-7 trouncing of New Hampshire. Moments later, Brown marched into the mix, slammed a congratulatory shoulder into senior Mike Omar's pads, then joined the players at midfield.
"It's just a great, great win," said Brown.
It was quite a contrast from the two meetings last year, both of which ended with UNH driving inside the UMass 10 in the last minute for a would-be tying touchdown, only to be turned aside by the Hatchell brothers. John batted down a fourth-down pitch from UNH quarterback Ricky Santos at Durham, N.H., and Jason knocked aside a fourth-down throw from Santos in the playoffs in Amherst.
This time, the Minutemen were in control, thanks to a relentless defense (eight sacks) and big days from senior tailback Matt Lawrence (27 carries, 139 yards, two touchdowns) and junior quarterback Liam Coen (21 of 28, 191 yards, one touchdown).
Both offensive stars credited the return of the starting offensive line, which was intact for the first time in five games.
"My big boys, they were going to work," said Lawrence.
"I can't do it without those guys up front," said Coen, who surpassed Todd Bankhead as the school's leader in career passing yards (7,133). "I didn't get touched today. That's ridiculous."
The victory clinched the Colonial Athletic Association North Division title and virtually assured the 8-2 (6-1) Minutemen a spot in the playoffs. They close the regular season Saturday at Hofstra.
For the 6-4 (3-4) Wildcats, the loss almost certainly shuts them out of playoff consideration, rendering Saturday's home finale against Maine a mere farewell for Santos and his fellow seniors.
"We've got one game left in our college career," said Santos (27 of 40, 221 yards, two interceptions). "That's it for us."
The reigning Walter Payton Award winner as the top offensive player in the playoff division, Santos was flustered like never before by a relentless UMass defense.
"We just gave them a host of looks, a potpourri of blitzes," said senior linebacker Charles Walker. "We came from everywhere."
UMass's defense asserted itself right away. On the opening drive, Santos led the Wildcats inside the UMass 10-yard line, but his rollout pass into the back corner was intercepted by Jeromy Miles, who wrestled the ball away from Keith LeVan.
Later in the quarter, the Wildcats were unable to cash in a 24-carat opportunity after a blocked punt gave them the ball on the UMass 11. Cornerback Courtney Robinson put UNH in reverse, throwing LeVan for a 7-yard loss, teaming with George Byrd for a sack, then running Chad Kackert out of bounds for a 1-yard gain. The Wildcats wound up punting.
The Minutemen went ahead late in the first quarter on a career-best 51-yard field goal by Chris Koepplin. Moments later, they cashed in again, thanks to Michael Meggett, who picked off a Santos pass that LeVan juggled, returning it 23 yards to the UNH 9. Lawrence scored on the ensuing play for a 10-0 lead.
Santos worked one piece of magic to make the game close. On fourth and 2 from the UMass 14, he appeared to be sacked by two players, but somehow moved the scrum forward for a first down. Two plays later, Kackert ran in from the 1.
The Wildcats saw a tying field goal bid from Tom Manning sail wide at the end of the half.
The second half was all UMass. The Minutemen put the game away with two authoritative drives into the wind to begin the third quarter. Lawrence ran 10 times on the opening drive for 80 of UMass's 88 yards, including a 5-yard score.
After a three-and-out, Coen went to work. He finished the drive with a gorgeous 21-yard post play that hit Omar in stride to make it 24-7. Koepplin tacked on another field goal in the fourth quarter.
On the way out, Brown tipped his hat to Santos.
"He's just so talented," said Brown. "Our league has been better off with him as a representative over the last few years. He's a quality player and a quality person."