A blowout was imminent, and probably expected by many in the world of collegiate football.
Two unusual interceptions — one caroming off the pads of a fallen intended receiver, the other resulting from an ill-advised pass from Marcus Wasilewski’s non-throwing left hand — were returned for touchdowns by heavily-favored Northwestern on either side of intermission to leave the University of Maine in a 21-0 hole Saturday afternoon in Evanston, Ill.
“At 21-0, it could have gotten ugly, and it didn’t,” Maine head coach Jack Cosgrove said in a conference call Monday morning. “Our guys went and drove the field and scored on the next possession. We kept fighting them. They kept counter-punching and scoring, but down the stretch, we really learned a lot about ourselves that can really help this football team.”
The Black Bears lost 35-21, their first loss of the season. Set aside the pair of interception returns, and each offense scored three touchdowns. Maine actually outgained the Wildcats, an unbeaten Football Bowl Subdivision powerhouse ranked 16th in the USA Today poll and 17th by the Associated Press, by 6 yards, 379 to 373.
“They did a terrific job of containing us there for a little while,” said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, whose offense scored on its opening drive and then not again until the fourth quarter, after the game.
It was the second time in three weeks the Black Bears, a Football Championship Subdivision program with 63 scholarship equivalancies, hung tough against an FBS opponent with 85 scholarships and a budget big enough to cut Maine a six-figure paycheck for making the trip and playing up a division.
Two weeks ago at Gillette Stadium, the Black Bears beat the University of Massachusetts 24-14.
They now enter an eight-game Colonial Athletic Association schedule with a 3-1 record, an idea that they can compete with anybody, and a long list of injuries.
At various times Saturday, Maine lost its quarterback (Wasilewski), tailback (Rickey Stevens), tight end (Justin Perillo) and outside linebacker (Cabrinni Goncalves). Its best pass rusher, Michael Cole, had a setback in practice last week and didn’t even make the trip.
“We had an opportunity to play a great program, the highest-ranked program we’ve ever played, on a beautiful day in Chicago,” Cosgrove said. “Our guys were excited. There are, I guess, repercussions. There’s the possibility of injury, but you never go in thinking that. … Whether we’re playing Northwestern or Richmond, there’s a risk environment here. It’s a violent game.”
Wasilewski left once after a helmet-to-helmet hit that resulted in a 15-yard personal foul penalty against Northwestern, returned to throw a touchdown pass to Perillo, then left again after a taking a blow to his left shoulder.
Stevens left the game after getting squashed by a Northwestern defensive tackle who appeared to outweigh him by at least 100 pounds. Ribs appear to be the issue.
“Rickey is the worst of the two,” said Cosgrove, who was awaiting a doctor’s report later Monday. “I think we might not see him for quite some time. But that’s nothing we can lament about. That’s the nature of the game.”
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Slot receiver John Ebeling filled in for Wasilewski the first time he was out, shades of Mike Brusko.
“He’s a very composed young man,” Cosgrove said. “He caught five or six balls for us outside, then he came in a ran the offense.”
Wasilewski returned to throw a tipped touchdown pass of 1 yard to Ebeling, who finished with five catches for 44 yards. Perillo led the team with eight receptions and Derrick Johnson, who had stumbled on the ill-fated slant pass, caught seven for 90 yards.
When Wasilewski left for good, red-shirt freshman Daniel Collins relieved and promptly completed four of six passes in his collegiate debut.
“To get his first college experience against a Big Ten team and to drive our football team down the field for a touchdown,” Cosgrove said, “that’s a heck of a start for a kid.”
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Against both Northwestern and UMass, the Black Bears fell behind 7-0 after the opening drive from their FBS host.
“Maybe it’s a little bit of being in awe for what we’re up against,” said Cosgrove, who otherwise has been very pleased with his defense. Watching tape of Northwestern’s quarterback tandem of Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian carve up Syracuse sent shivers up Cosgrove’s spine.
“Knowing what Syracuse has versus what we have, really, it was an intimidating tape to watch,” he said. “Our guys just played hard. … We couldn’t tackle the damn quarterback, and that was a big problem. (Colter) got out of two sacks. If we get them, it could be a different ballgame. That’s something we can be very, very proud of.”
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Maine opens its CAA schedule Saturday against the University of Richmond (2-2) in Virginia, the fourth road game in five weeks. How many healthy players the Black Bears can bring south will factor into their chances.
“We found another gear that was within us,” Cosgrove said of facing up to the challenges posed by Northwestern and UMass. “The downside is that we’ve lot a lot of football players. Depth is a real challenge right now, but that’s football. The next guy has to go in.”