Off to its best start in more than a decade, the University of Maine football team hardly has time to enjoy its 3-0 record.

Next up is Northwestern of the Big Ten Conference. The Wildcats (3-0) are ranked 16th in one national poll and 18th in another, having beaten California, Syracuse and Western Michigan by at least two touchdowns each.

“This is the biggest challenge that we’ve ever faced, I think,” said Maine head coach Jack Cosgrove in a conference call Monday morning. “In all the FBS games we’ve played, we’ve never played a team ranked this high.”

The Black Bears opened their 2008 campaign — which ended in an NCAA playoff appearance — with a 46-3 drubbing at another Big Ten opponent, Iowa.

“Iowa was (ranked) 20th when we played them,” Cosgrove said, “and that got ugly. … I thought we played very well, but (46-3) doesn’t indicate that.”

The Black Bears recovered from a slow start in their home opener Saturday in Orono by beating Bryant 35-22. Red-shirt freshman Christophe Mulumba, a middle linebacker, made 12 tackles, four of them solo and teamed with senior Troy Eastman on Maine’s only sack. Mulumba also broke up two passes.

That effort earned him the Colonial Athletic Association’s Rookie of the Week award, the first CAA honor bestowed on any Black Bear this season. Offensive, defensive and special teams players of the week are also recognized.

“We’re very pleased with where he is right now,” Cosgrove said. “He’s further ahead than we expected him to be.”

Mulumba missed his freshman year with a knee injury, so he didn’t even gain experience as a scout team player. His emergence in training camp allowed the Black Bears to return Westbrook native Trevor Bates from middle linebacker to defensive end after another injury left that position thin.

“We’re excited about (Mulumba) and his future,” Cosgrove said.

Senior quarterback Marcus Wasilewski threw for 263 yards and four touchdowns Saturday without an interception. He also ran 13 times for 67 yards.

“In the last two weeks, he’s played very well for the most part,” Cosgrove said. “He’s moved the chains, played as a quarterback should, as a manager of the game and decision maker. But we’re going to need almost a flawless performance from him this week if we’re going to have success.”

Defensive end Michael Cole and fullback Carlton Charles missed Saturday’s game because of injuries. Cosgrove described their status as day-to-day.

Cosgrove squashed any notion of holding out Cole or Charles from what figures to be a bruising Northwestern game in order to save them for conference action that begins the following weekend at the University of Richmond in Virginia.

“That’s the last thing we’d ever do is save players,” Cosgrove said. “That’s just not a good state of mind to have in your football program. We’re going out to (Illinois) to win a football game and we need everybody, all hands on deck.”

Northwestern uses two quarterbacks, with Kain Colter more a running threat and Trevor Siemian more a passer. Tailback Treyvon Green runs for 118 yards per game in an offense that averages 520 yards each Saturday.

“We’re really up against it,” Cosgrove said. “We know that. But it’s exciting to be able to do this. We’re going to commit ourselves to doing it as well as possible … and our mindset is to go out and win.”

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Bryant coach Marty Fine grew up in New York, earned a degree from Western New Mexico and was an assistant at Colgate, Indiana and Iowa State before helping the Bulldogs make the transition from a successful Division II program to a competitive Division I program.

Although disappointed in his team not being able to extend its 16-7 second-quarter lead against Maine, Fine marveled at Cosgrove’s ability to keep Maine competitive despite its remote location and limited resources.

“From the rest of America, to do what he’s done here, so far removed from where he has to get the majority of his players, it’s a remarkable thing,” Fine said. “That’s from a football coach’s perspective. I’ve been a lot of places and a lot of years. Really, it’s viewed that way from our entire profession.”

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Saturday’s game-changing play came late in the second quarter when wide receiver Damarr Aultman and Wasilewski both recognized a Bryant blitz on first down, after Wasilewski had connected with slot receiver John Ebeling for a 14-yard gain.

“We talked about it, because it happened on the drive before,” Wasilewski said. “We expected it again, got it, corrected ourselves and got a big play out of it.”

Indeed, Aultman caught the quick slant and ran 51 yards behind good downfield blocking for the touchdown that cut Bryant’s lead to 14-12. An Eastman interception less than a minute later set up a 16-yard Wasilewski touchdown pass to Derrick Johnson and the Black Bears never trailed again.

Wasilewski also threw scoring passes to tight end Justin Perillo and wide receiver Jordan Dunn, a red-shirt freshman.

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Television coverage of the Maine-Northwestern game will be limited to the Big Ten Network, which can be found on channel 439 on the Dish Network, 610 on DIRECTV and 470 or 592 (HD) on Time Warner Cable. Kickoff is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. EST.

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