ORONO — As if to celebrate the 58th birthday of head football coach Jack Cosgrove, a dozen portable heaters stood in a small lobby outside his office at the University of Maine.
The reconstruction project at the adjacent Memorial Field House inadvertently knocked out heat for the football offices, which temporarily lost power as well Wednesday morning. Earlier this season, air conditioning also fell victim to the guys wearing hard hats.
“Our kids are pretty good with distractions,” said Kevin Bourgoin, Maine’s offensive coordinator, with a wave toward the cordoned-off construction zone just outside the door. “There’s hammering going on, and drilling, when we’re in position meetings, and they can’t hear me coach, but they have the ability to focus in and not let those things distract them.”
Perhaps a sociology major could write a thesis on Gridiron as Oasis. In any case, the Black Bears are no strangers to adversity, starting with their location as the northeast outpost of the Colonial Athletic Association, whose other 10 football programs have each, unlike Maine, lost to a conference opponent.
Ranked 10th in the latest Football Championship Subdivision poll, the Black Bears (7-1 overall, 4-0 CAA) host Stony Brook (3-4, 1-3) Saturday afternoon at Alfond Stadium.
The contest pits the conference’s stingiest passing defense — Stony Brook allows only 158.3 yards per game — against one of the CAA’s leading aerial shows. Maine averages 262.2 passing yards and boasts four receivers with at least 30 catches.
Only one other school (Richmond) has more than two receivers to reach that plateau, and only two others (Towson and William & Mary) have more than one.
“We feel like we have a very talented group,” said junior wide receiver Damarr Aultman, who caught 29 passes as a sophomore and 39 as a red-shirt freshman. “At any moment, any one of us could take off and have a really good game.”
Indeed, the others — wide receiver Derrick Johnson, slot receiver John Ebeling and tight end Justin Perillo — all have led the team in catches during a game at some point this season, as has junior Art Williams, who was limited by injury earlier in the season and has 11 catches.
“They all have a different set of skills,” Cosgrove said. “Derrick is one of our faster players. Damarr is one of our more dynamic players. He’s made some real big plays for us this year. Justin is that consummate tight end who can find ways to get open and make catches in a crowd.”
And Ebeling, who lost out to Marcus Wasilewski in last year’s preseason quarterback competition? Cosgrove calls Ebeling the X factor.
“His contribution has been outstanding,” he said. “He has given us another inside receiver so that Justin is not the only inside receiver.”
Ebeling is a versatile athlete who considered playing college basketball and was a high school high-jumper (6-foot-4) and hurdler. He became the punt snapper at Maine as a sophomore after what amounted to an open tryout. His father played linebacker and defensive end at Colgate and his older brother played wide receiver for Yale.
“He’s helped me out a little bit with some technique stuff,” said Ebeling, who is four years younger. “I had never played receiver before coming to Maine.”
“I think the move Coach (Bourgoin) made last spring to make him a slot receiver and take him out of the quarterback picture, to a certain extent,” Cosgrove said, “has really turned into a huge bonus for us.”
Bourgoin, who calls the plays from a booth inside the press box, has not consciously distributed the receptions among Johnson (41), Ebeling (35), Perillo (32) and Aultmann (30).
“I’m calling the plays based on what the defense is giving us,” said Bourgoin, a Vermont native who played receiver at UMass. “Every play, there should be someone open, based on the coverage.”
The job for Wasilewski is to find that open receiver and get him the ball, a simple-sounding task made challenging by the mayhem going on all around him.
In last weekend’s 37-35 victory over Villanova, Wasilewski found that open guy 28 times. Only six passes fell incomplete, and there were no interceptions. A year ago against Villanova, with the same plays, the same schemes and many of the same players, Wasilewski completed 31 passes but finished with 22 incompletions and two interceptions. Villanova, scoring the same number of points, won 35-14.
“It’s (Wasilewski) having a better understanding of where to go with the football,” Bourgoin said. “It’s experience. It’s knowledge of our offense. It’s confidence. It’s film study. I really think about a third of the way through (last) season, it started to click with him. He understood how to watch film and what to look for.”
There will always be distractions. Obstacles will abound. There may be heat, or there may be cold. It may seem as if a jack-hammer is pounding away upstairs.
In Orono, at least this year, it’s all part of the process. If the Black Bears can take such adversity and use it to stoke their internal fires, their success is likely to continue.
Just ask Aultman, who grew up on Long Island about half an hour from the campus of Stony Brook. If the Seawolves football staff was interested in recruiting him, Aultman never knew it.
“I guess I was overlooked,” Aultman said with a wry smile. “So yeah, I’ll be playing with a chip on my shoulder.”
Add it to the pile.
Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or[email protected]Twitter: GlennJordanPPH