Fresh off a thrilling 37-35 road victory over Villanova to remain unbeaten in conference play, the University of Maine football team moved up to 10th in The Sports Network national poll and 11th in the coaches poll of Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division 1-AA) programs.
The Black Bears are 7-1 overall and 4-0 in the Colonial Athletic Association with Stony Brook, Albany and Rhode Island coming up on their dance card. All three teams have losing records, which might lead some to muse about a 10-1 record heading into the regular-season finale against New Hampshire in Durham, with a possible bye in the expanded 24-team NCAA tournament at stake.
Maine head coach Jack Cosgrove’s view of the future, however, stretches only as far as Saturday.
“Our eyes are on Stony Brook and that’s it,” Cosgrove said Monday morning in the weekly CAA conference call. “When you’re on the downside looking up at the opponents in this league, you learn how to respect them.”
Two years ago, Maine went 6-2 in the conference and reached the quarterfinals of the national tournament. Last year, the Black Bears finished 4-4 and missed the playoffs.
Saturday’s game matched the CAA’s top two quarterbacks, and neither disappointed. Villanova sophomore John Robertson — described by Cosgrove as “the FCS version of Johnny Football” and “that guy that nobody can tackle” — surpassed 200 yards rushing for the second week in a row. He finished with 214 yards and four touchdowns to go along with another score through the air among his 13-of-22 passing attempts.
Maine senior Marcus Wasilewski, a Pennsylvania native, celebrated his return by engineering scoring drives on Maine’s first six possessions, stretching into the third quarter, to help the Black Bears build a 30-14 lead. He completed 28 of 34 passes for 334 yards and two touchdowns, ran 20 times for 86 yards and one touchdown, and threw a block that sprung tailback Nigel Jones for a 15-yard touchdown run after Jones had appeared bottled up at the line of scrimmage.
“Marcus played a great football game for us,” Cosgrove said. “He was incredibly efficient (passing) and the runs were very productive at key points in the game.”
Wasilewski leads the CAA in total offense with a per game average of 307 yards. The Black Bears lead the conference in pass efficiency, defensive pass efficiency and third-down conversion rate (55.2 percent).
Through eight games, the Black Bears have made more third-down conversions (64) than they did all of last season (54). It’s an aspect of the game that Cosgrove hammered home in spring practice, preseason camp and during the season.
“We emphasized it because we were so bad at it,” he said of last year’s 36 percent conversion rate. “Our defense, too. (Defensive coordinator Paul) Ferraro wants a lot of third-down work, too. It’s the opportunity for the defense to get off the field. It’s the offense’s opportunity to continue your drive. So it’s a big play in the game and we’ve really spent a ton of time on it.”
On Saturday, Wasilewski threw incompletions on his first two third-down attempts, but the Black Bears converted 13 of their next 17 chances on third down. They were a perfect 8-of-8 when needing three yards or fewer for the first down, and Wasilewski scrambled 16 yards when he needed 15 to keep alive a second-quarter drive.
“We were very good at moving the chains Saturday,” Cosgrove said. “We put ourselves in better situations, down and distance-wise, by our (success) on first down.”
Maine rolled up 536 yards of total offense and held a whopping 13-minute advantage in time of possession. No other CAA team controls the ball as well as Maine, which averages 33:20 per game.
The Black Bears also overcame a sluggish start by successfully pulling off a fake punt on fourth-and-4 from their own 34. Blocking back Khari Al-Mateen, normally a safety, took the punt snap and raced up the middle for 41 yards.
“That really kind of opened things up,” said Cosgrove, whose team trailed 7-0 at the time, “because we were on the verge of a three-and-out right away.”
That play set the stage for the first of three Sean Decloux field goals. The sophomore from Ontario hit from 39, 42 and 40 yards, all in the first half, with the final kick coming as time expired in the second quarter.
“That was a windy day down there, with swirling winds,” Cosgrove said. “None of those field goals was easy. He nailed them all. It was very good to see and obviously, one of those field goals provided our margin of victory.”