At this time last fall, the University of Maine football team was 2-5 with personal pride the only thing at stake for the final month of the season.
A year later, with many of the same players in the same positions, the Black Bears are 6-1, ranked 14th in the coaches poll (and 11th in The Sports Network poll) and the only unbeaten team (3-0) in the Colonial Athletic Association. They are within reach of not only an NCAA playoff berth in the 24-team Football Championship Subdivision tournament, but a potential first-round bye if they continue their winning ways.
“It’s experience,” said head coach Jack Cosgrove in a Monday morning conference call. “You don’t learn in this game until you’re in the action.”
As the Black Bears took their lumps last fall, they got better. They won three of four to finish out a 5-6 campaign and nobody learned more than quarterback Marcus Wasilewski, who entered this fall as a poised and experienced senior ready to direct a balanced offense.
“His growth from last year to this year has been substantial,” Cosgrove said. “He entered this year with a far greater level of confidence.”
Wasilewski was named co-offensive player of the week Monday by the CAA. He shares that honor with Villanova sophomore quarterback John Robertson.
Wasilewski completed his first 11 passes in Saturday’s 34-20 homecoming victory over William & Mary. He finished 16 of 22 for 192 yards and two touchdowns and surpassed 4,000 passing yards for his career. He also carried 11 times for 92 yards, although a season-high three sacks reduced his rushing total to 71.
“It’s not just me,” Wasilewski said after the game Saturday. “It’s the receivers, it’s the O-line and it’s just executing our game plan and seeing things out there on the field and communicating and doing everything as one unit.”
Robertson, another dual threat, ran for 256 yards and three touchdowns on 27 carries and connected on 15 of 17 passes for 122 yards in Villanova’s 29-28 loss at New Hampshire. The CAA’s top two quarterbacks in terms of total offense (290.7 yards per game for Robertson vs. 290.6 for Wasilewski) will meet Saturday outside of Philadelphia as No. 17 Villanova (4-3, 3-1) celebrates homecoming.
“I still look at Marcus’ greatest strength is his ability to throw the football,” Cosgrove said. “But his running, in a by-product kind of way, has really helped us.”
Watching video of Robertson in preparation for Saturday’s game has Cosgrove concerned.
“He’s just scary,” Cosgrove said. “Marcus is a guy who will go north and south and take a hit and go down. John makes people miss. He’s got great feet, he cuts back. There’s a lot of people missing tackles when they try to get him.”
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The other major factor in Maine’s turnaround is a coaching staff that, except for Dennis Dottin-Carter, who left Orono for Delaware, is familiar both with the players and with the way Cosgrove works.
In the spring and fall of 2012, Cosgrove not only was rebuilding a team that lost veteran quarterback Warren Smith and a core of seniors that helped earn an NCAA playoff victory, he was breaking in five new assistant coaches.
“There’s a real difference (this fall) in familiarity with personnel, staff and players,” he said.
“Our practices are far crisper. All the things that go into your preparation game are working at a much better level this year than they were last.”
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Villanova coach Andy Talley is happy to be home after tough games at previously-unbeaten Towson (a 45-35 victory) and New Hampshire, where Robertson’s 42-yard touchdown run with 1:09 remaining appeared to set the stage for a 28-21 victory. Instead, New Hampshire returned the kickoff to the 35 and a late hit added 15 more yards to put the ball at midfield.
With 14 seconds left, UNH sophomore quarterback Sean Goldrich scored from the 4 after faking a jump pass, and a direct snap to running back Chris Setian led to the winning two-point conversion.
“It was just a gut-buster,” Talley said. “If we had to play Maine at Maine right now, I’d be more worried than I am. I’m worried as it is. We’re going to have to play our best game of the year to beat them.”
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Michael Cole, who remains 2.5 sacks away from Maine’s career record, did not suit up Saturday against William & Mary. He said he is hopeful of returning from a pectoral muscle tear in time for the game at Villanova.
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The NCAA tournament field expands from 18 to 24 FCS teams this fall, meaning only six teams will earn byes on Thanksgiving weekend. Eleven conferences send one automatic qualifier and the remaining 13 teams are selected at large by committee.
“I would think that a team with four losses is really going to struggle to get in,” Talley said. “It’s going to be tough this year.”