ORONO — Virginia is for Black Bears.
Not a motto likely to win favor with lovers of the state’s tourism campaign, but truthful enough for the University of Maine football program.
The Black Bears open their 2013 season Saturday night at Norfolk State, a member of the Mid-Eastern Atlantic Conference (MEAC), looking for their fourth straight victory on Virginia soil.
In 2011, a visiting Maine squad beat James Madison and Richmond. Last year in Williamsburg, Maine beat William & Mary 24-10.
On Saturday night, the Black Bears face a Norfolk State team coming off a 4-7 season. Against teams currently in the Colonial Athletic Association (Maine became a member in 2007), the Spartans are 0-6.
Although Maine has only one player on its roster from Virginia — sophomore starting right guard Dan Carriker hails from Alexandria — head coach Jack Cosgrove said his program’s recruiting footprint extends into Northern Virginia.
“We get name recognition down there by playing James Madison and Richmond and William & Mary, so it makes sense,” Cosgrove said. “And we’re always looking for opponents up here. They were willing to do a home-and-home, so they’ll come up (to Orono) next year.”
For what it’s worth, preseason coaches polls predicted Maine would finish eighth in the CAA this season and Norfolk State seventh in the MEAC, so both teams are approaching this as a winnable game.
Here are four questions that linger over Maine as it attempts to return to the national playoff picture: Can the offensive line overcome the loss of three solid veterans?
All-American guard Chris Howley, all-conference tackle Josh Spearin and reliable center Garret Williamson helped smooth the transition from veteran quarterback Warren Smith to untested Marcus Wasilewski last fall. Now that all three have graduated, will Wasilewski be running for cover or can returning seniors Joe Hook and Jeff Gakos blend well with newcomers Bruce Johnson, Tyler Patterson and Carriker?
“We’re anxious to see them play as a unit,” Cosgrove said. “Because it’s what the unit does, not the individual. If we pass protect, it’s five guys. If we run block, they always know that if one guy is out of kilter, then the play’s got no shot.”
Running backs Rickey Stevens (830 rushing yards on 137 carries) and Nigel Jones (358 on 49) are also hoping the line stays in kilter.
Will defensive end Michael Cole continue to wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks?
Cole, a senior, amassed seven sacks in only five games last fall before a quadriceps injury ended his season. After a long period of rehabilitation, he is back and on track to break the school’s career record for sacks.
Keeping him healthy will be important to Maine’s secondary, which helped the Black Bears rank 10th in the nation in pass efficiency defense last season and first in the CAA in points allowed (19.5 per game).
“I’m pretty used to having the running back on my side now (for additional pass protection) and getting held here and there,” Cole said.
“But as a defensive lineman, our coach always tells you that if you get held, it’s your fault. Just get his hands off you and get to the quarterback.”
Cole needs seven more sacks to pass Mike Denino on the career list.
Will a lack of experience hinder the interior of Maine’s defense?
The two players slated to share the role of nose tackle — Darius Greene and Patrick Ricard — are both red-shirt freshmen who will get their first taste of collegiate football Saturday night. Behind them, at the middle linebacker position manned by Donte Dennis last season, is another red-shirt freshman, Christophe Mulumba.
How well they play will go a long way toward Maine’s efforts to stop a Norfolk State running game that includes Boston College transfer Rolandan “Deuce” Finch, who rushed for 90 yards in last year’s 34-3 opener over the Black Bears at Chestnut Hill, Mass.
The Spartans also have transfers from Florida (linebacker Lynden Trail) and Michigan (via Bowling Green, wide receiver Je’Ron Stokes).
Another linebacker new to Maine’s starting line-up is sophomore Cabrinni Goncalves, which means veteran Troy Eastman will be counted on for stability.
“He’s the veteran,” Cosgrove said. “Those two guys (Mulumba and Goncalves) are inexperienced, yeah, but we’ve watched them in spring and watched them in pre-season and we feel like they’re ready to play. I’m excited about both of them.”
Can quarterback Marcus Wasilewski pick up where he left off?
Wasilewski led the Black Bears to 106 points in the final two games of 2012 and had a firm grasp on the offensive tiller. He threw for 21 touchdowns and was intercepted only 11 times. He is the CAA’s top returning passer in terms of yards per game (214.9).
The only significant receiver lost to graduation is Maurice McDonald, but the turnover on the offensive line remains a concern.
“It’s not solely on me and it’s not solely on any one of them,”
Wasilewski said. “It’s just being able to work together. That’s what we focused on this summer. As long as that goes smoothly during game time, then we’ll be successful.”