ORONO — The Road to Frisco began Saturday for the 20 NCAA Division I football programs earning invitations to the national FCS playoffs.
The University of Maine, after reaching the quarterfinals of the tournament a year ago and finishing as the No. 8-ranked team in the nation, is a spectator after a 5-6 season that included a 4-4 Colonial Athletic Association record.
Three fellow CAA teams are in the tournament. Villanova hosted Stony Brook – to join the conference next fall – on Saturday. New Hampshire (8-3) and fourth-seeded Old Dominion (10-1) earned byes and will play next Saturday.
Quarterfinals begin the second weekend of December, with the championship game scheduled for Jan. 5 in Frisco, Texas.
This season marked the 20th at Maine for head coach Jack Cosgrove, who will meet with athletic director Steve Abbott early next week to discuss the future. The five-year contract Cosgrove signed in late 2007 expires at the end of June, 2013.
“We had a meeting in early October,” Cosgrove said. “A contract offer was extended, but I didn’t think the timing was right.”
As someone who continually preaches team above individual, Cosgrove has never been comfortable discussing contract matters in the middle of the season, and certainly didn’t want to be a distraction the week leading up to the game with longtime rival New Hampshire.
Five years ago, the university also allowed Cosgrove to enter the final season of a contract without an extension. Not until December of that year, after Rhode Island had expressed interest in hiring him, did a deal come together.
Maine is 111-118 under Cosgrove, who has led the Black Bears to four NCAA tournament appearances (2001, 2002, 2008, 2011) and earns a base annual salary of $175,000, making him the school’s second-highest paid coach after men’s hockey coach Tim Whitehead ($190,000).
On the Sunday after the final game of the season at Rhode Island, Cosgrove gave the day off to all his assistants – there are now 51 who have worked for him during his tenure in Orono – and watched video of the 55-6 finale.
This is what he saw:
* A Maine team with only seven available seniors from the original 17 in a recruiting class that arrived on campus four or five years ago (depending on whether they red-shirted a season).
* Special teams made up entirely of underclassmen (with the exception of Troy Russell on the punt and kickoff teams).
* A first-year quarterback – junior Marcus Wasilewski – who threw for four touchdowns and no interceptions for the second week in a row.
* A pair of tailbacks who were third and fourth on the depth chart after training camp run for 110 yards and a touchdown (junior Rickey Stevens) and 182 yards and two touchdowns (freshman Nigel Jones).
* Junior safety Jamal Clay continue his late-season surge by leading the Black Bears in tackles (9) and breaking up two passes.
“I was pleased with a number of things that took place during the year,” Cosgrove said. “We got better in a lot of spots.”
In addition to the players noted above, Cosgrove mentioned sophomore defensive lineman Matt Wilson, junior linebacker Troy Eastman and junior guard Jeff Gakos among those who showed significant improvement.
The Black Bears replaced not only a strong class that led them to the NCAA quarterfinals in 2011, but also five assistant coaches from that club. In spring practice, Cosgrove was assessing and teaching not only new players but new coaches.
“It’s a young staff, an inexperienced staff, but like our team, I felt like we fought ’til the end and we got better toward the end,” Cosgrove said. “So there’s a sense of accomplishment (for winning three of the final four games and pulling even in conference play). There’s a sense of optimism in the air, too.”
Senior linebacker Donte Dennis, despite not playing against Rhode Island, joined Stephen Cooper as the only Black Bear to lead the team in tackles for three years. Dennis, who suffered what turned out to be a torn ACL against Georgia State, finished with 86 tackles.
Dennis was one of five Maine players named to all-conference teams. He made the All-CAA first team along with guard Chris Howley and tight end Justin Perillo. Cornerback Darlos James and tackle Josh Spearin Limington were named to the second team.
Jones, who averaged 7.3 yards per carry this season, was named CAA Rookie of the Week and The Sports Network National Freshman of the Week for his performance against Rhode Island.
Staff Writer Glenn Jordan can be
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