By GLENN JORDAN
Portland Press Herald
ORONO — There was no surprise in Troy Eastman’s voice following the University of Maine’s 41-0 victory over Rhode Island on Saturday in Orono to clinch the school’s first Colonial Athletic Association title and an automatic NCAA tournament bid.
“We knew this was going to happen,” said the senior linebacker, who stoked his internal fires in part from a preseason poll predicting Maine to finish eighth in the 11-team CAA. Instead, the Black Bears are the only team without a conference loss (7-0) and moved up two spots to No. 4 in both Football Championship Subdivision national polls released Monday.
“That was like a slap in the face,” Eastman said of the low expectation for what has become a 10-1 overall record, the best start in the 121-year history of the Maine football program. “We have a big senior class. We were up here in the summer, working hard, living with each other, eating with each other. This is what we worked for, this is what we wanted, and we knew we were going to get it.”
The Black Bears are almost assured of one of eight byes in the 24-team playoffs, which begin Nov. 30, and submitted bids to the NCAA Monday afternoon to host as many as three December playoff games, something never before seen in Orono.
All nine of Maine’s previous NCAA playoff games have been outside of New England. The Black Bears are 3-3 in first- and second-round games and 0-3 in the quarterfinal round.
The two teams immediately ahead of Maine in last week’s FCS polls — Sam Houston State (8-3) and Fordham (10-1) — both lost Saturday. Unlike the bigger programs in the Football Bowl Subdivision, FCS schools determine a national champion through a playoff system.
Of course, Maine still has one game remaining in the regular season, and against its biggest rival. No. 21 New Hampshire (6-4 overall, 6-2 CAA) has won five of six, is unbeaten at home, and needs a victory Saturday in Durham in order to have a shot at one of the 13 at-large bids to extend a nine-year streak of FCS tournament participation, longest in the country.
“I feel like we’re very fortunate to have this game after (clinching against Rhode Island) because it’s an attention-getter,” said Maine head coach Jack Cosgrove on his regular Monday morning conference call. “Right away I could sense (Sunday) with our team meeting that as much as we enjoyed what happened Saturday, there’s another important football game to be played this weekend.”
The winner of the annual interstate rivalry takes possession of the Brice-Cowell Musket for display in its locker room. The flintlock rifle has resided south of the border for nine of the past 10 years, with Maine’s only victory coming in 2010. The past five meetings have been decided by seven points or fewer.
“This thing has changed a lot over the last 10 or 15 years,” said New Hampshire head coach Sean McDonnell, who, like Cosgrove, played for his alma mater before the musket was added to spice up the rivalry between northern New England’s two most prominent Division I football programs. “With the presentation of that award at the end of the game, it makes the game special, it makes the game meaningful. And, there ain’t no next (game) for anybody from the University of New Hampshire, because there’s no (playoff) guarantee. Maine has a next one.”
Maine’s victory Saturday was its seventh in a row, following a loss at Northwestern of the Big Ten Conference. Against Rhode Island, as was the case in the five games prior, the Black Bears did not lose a fumble or have a pass intercepted. In addition, after giving up eight sacks in the previous two games against Stony Brook and Albany, the Black Bears did not allow quarterback Marcus Wasilewski to be tackled for a loss.
“We addressed (pass protection) real hard during the week and I think, overall, it was much better,” said Cosgrove, who said his offensive line was not entirely to blame earlier this month. “We felt a couple times against Albany that Marcus, instead of stepping up in the pocket, he kicks outside and disrupts the protection. So it’s a group effort.”
Returning to the lineup Saturday after missing two games with an injury was freshman Jeremy Salmon, the back-up short snapper who filled in for senior tight end Justin Perillo, who is also out with an injury. Sophomore place kicker Sean Decloux, who missed two PAT attempts and a 47-yard field goal attempt in the 33-27 victory at Albany, was perfect on seven kicks Saturday, including field goals of 36 and 38 yards that gave him 13 for the year and tied the school’s single-season record. He is the leading scorer among kickers in the CAA, which named him Special Teams Player of the Week Monday.
“Most people don’t realize the impact a snapper can have,” Cosgrove said. “We think (Salmon) is as good as we’ve ever seen â¦ as a freshman. Our operation times were outstanding.”
Senior tailback Rickey Stevens, a walk-on who transfered from an NAIA school in Cleveland, broke by one yard the school record for longest run from scrimmage with his 90-yard touchdown run in the second quarter Saturday. Carl Smith broke an 89-yard run against Rutgers in 1991.
“Rickey is one of our truly great stories,” said Cosgrove, who learned of Stevens only because Maine was recruiting his high school teammate, center Bruce Johnson. “In our run game, he’s the guy who fits into the scheme the best. He’s the most patient runner we have. He finds ways to be faster than the clock tells you he is. He finds ways to catch footballs and read blocks and make our screen game better all the time.”
One area of concern Saturday was penalties. Maine drew seven for 71 yards, including an unusual sideline interference call on Cosgrove for inadvertently tripping a referee. Among CAA teams, only Towson has been penalized more than Maine, which averages 61 yards in negative yardage per game.
Five other teams in addition to Maine have secured berths in the NCAA tournament by virtue of winning conference championships: No. 1 North Dakota State (Missouri Valley), No. 3 Eastern Washington (Big Sky), No. 2 Eastern Illinois (Ohio Valley), No. 8 Southeastern Louisiana (Southland) and unranked Sacred Heart (Northeast). The announcement of the field will be televised next Sunday at 11:30 a.m. on ESPNU.
In the meantime, CAA championship T-shirts and sweatshirts are already on sale in Orono and on the school’s athletic website: goblackbears.com. Cosgrove is confident arch-rival New Hampshire will be higher in the minds of his players.
“Like young people tend to do, they can go on that social media and find somebody to tell them how great they are,” he said. “So this is a game we should be grateful is on our schedule right now.”