As far as first impressions go, Joe Harasymiak and his University of Maine football team made a pretty good one Thursday night.

Yes, the Black Bears lost their season opener at Connecticut, 24-21, when Bobby Puyol kicked a 37-yard field goal with 11 seconds left.

But Maine’s performance left everyone impressed.

“Credit to Maine and Coach Harasymiak,” said Connecticut Coach Bob Diaco. “Maine is a hard-nosed bunch, just like their coach. They play great defense and have for a long time, and that has bled into that team.”

The last time these schools played, in 2007, UConn won 38-0. That the Black Bears had a seven-point lead in the fourth quarter this time – against a Football Bowl Subdivision program – showed how much belief they have in each other.

This was a game Maine could have, maybe should have, won. When the Black Bears tied the game with 1 second left in the third quarter on a stunning 40-yard pass from Dan Collins to Jaleel Reed, the air was sucked out of Rentschler Field.

And it became eerily silent six minutes later when cornerback Najee Goode sacked Huskies quarterback Bryant Shirreffs, forced a fumble and then scooped it up for a 74-yard touchdown return. With 9:56 remaining, the Black Bears led 21-14.

But they couldn’t hold on. Maine was hurt by missed field goals (two, including one that was partially blocked with 1:48 remaining), missed offensive plays (a couple passes on the final drive, in particular), missed tackles (UConn quarterback Bryant Shirreffs ducked and juked his way to 114 of UConn’s 231 rushing yards) and penalties (a 15-yard sidelines infraction on Goode’s touchdown return that was enforced on the ensuing kickoff, which led to great field position for UConn).

On Friday, Harasymiak said, “All those things are correctable.”

And, he continued, “If we want to be where we want to be in the (Colonial Athletic Association) we’ve got to win games like that.”

So what did we learn Thursday?

Maine’s offense can strike quickly. Collins completed 19 of 33 passes for 269 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He made some remarkable throws, none better than his 18-yard completion to breakout receiver Jaleel Reed on third-and-13 on Maine’s final drive. Maine’s passing game can only get better when Micah Wright, who has to sit out one more game, returns.

Maine needs better balance on offense. The Black Bears rushed for only 54 yards, 30 by freshman Josh Mack. Part of that was because UConn’s defense, especially its front seven, is strong against the run. Maine’s offense should improve once running back Zaire Williams, a transfer from Temple, is cleared academically by the NCAA, and when left tackle Jamil Demby, who missed the first game because of a knee injury, returns. Both could be back Saturday at Toledo.

The running game needs to improve to help keep the defense off the field. Connecticut had possession for 36 minutes, 16 seconds, including 10:01 in the decisive fourth quarter.

Maine needs better tackling. The Black Bears had Shirreffs in their sights throughout the game, only to have him spin away from an onrushing tackler and pick up big yardage with a scramble. “It happened in the red zone, it happened on third down,” said Harasymiak. “We’ve got to tackle better than we did.”

Special teams need to improve. The Black Bears missed two field goals – continuing a problem that goes back to last year when they missed 7 of 18 – but that wasn’t the only issue. Connecticut began four drives at its 46, 49, 43 (which led to a touchdown) and 46 (which led to the tying touchdown in the fourth quarter), and two more at the 35 and 30 (which led to the winning field goal). Maine’s best starting field position was its 27. Four other drives started inside the 20.

Maine needs to finish what it starts. The Black Bears were in position to win in the fourth quarter, just as they were several times in 2015, when they finished with a 3-8 record.

“After watching the film, the disappointment is that we should have won,” said Harasymiak. “We executed at a high level for most of the game.

“I feel if we had made one or two more plays, we would have had it. And we’re not disappointed in the guys, we’re disappointed in the fact that we were there.”

Harasymiak, at 30 the youngest NCAA Division I football coach, led the Black Bears out of the tunnel and onto the field Thursday night. He called it one of the “cooler moments in my life” and that it was when it really hit him that he was a head coach.

“There were some chills,” he said. “That was an eye-opener for me.”

Maine’s performance was an eye-opener as well. It showed that the Black Bears might be better than anyone thought. And it also showed just how far they still have to go.


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