ORONO — The questions began in the offseason, when Josh Mack, who led the Football Championship Subdivision in rushing last year, transferred from the University of Maine. And the team lost four members of the offensive line to graduation, including left tackle Jamil Demby, who was selected in the NFL draft.

Who’s going to run the ball? Who’s going to block?

Throughout the preseason, Maine’s coaches and players kept telling everyone to relax. It might have been worth listening to them.

The Black Bears take a 2-0 record into Saturday’s game at Central Michigan behind a smothering defense and a surprisingly effective running game. Led by the 1-2 punch of junior Joe Fitzpatrick and redshirt freshman Ramon Jefferson, the Black Bears are averaging 172.5 rushing yards per game, fourth in the 12-team Colonial Athletic Association. Maine rushed for 199 yards in an opening 35-7 win over New Hampshire and 142 in a 31-28 win over Western Kentucky, a Football Bowl Subdivision team.

Maine averaged 174.2 yards last year, third in the CAA.

“I think the question’s been answered there,” said sophomore quarterback Chris Ferguson.

And how. Maine’s offensive line – from left to right, sophomore Gunnar Ducos, junior transfer Migel Garcia, sophomore Chris Mulvey, sophomore Liam Dobson and senior Cody Levy (with freshman Mike Gerace filling in for Mulvey at center against Western Kentucky) – has opened holes and protected Ferguson much better than most had expected.

“They’ve exceeded some expectations,” said UMaine offensive coordinator Nick Charlton. “But I believe in those kids, I believe in those players. Just because they’re newer players doesn’t mean they’re not as good as players we’ve had before.”

Fitzpatrick and Jefferson have become a potent duo, replacing the powerful Mack, who rushed for 1,335 yards and nine touchdowns a year ago before transferring to Liberty University.

Fitzpatrick, a 5-foot-10, 215-pound back from North Yarmouth and Cheverus High, is fourth among CAA rushers with an average of 81 yards per game. He is averaging 4.3 yards per carry. Jefferson, at 5-9 and 175 pounds, is from the Bronx and has rushed for 134 yards, averaging 5.6 yards a carry.

“We heard plenty in the offseason,” said Fitzpatrick, who rushed for 382 yards and one touchdown last year. “That was just noise that we ignored because we knew what we could do. … I’ve always felt that when you have multiple backs who do different things – one’s going to run around you, one’s going to run through you – that’s going to be more of a challenge for the defense to adjust to during the game.”

Fitzpatrick has become Maine’s go-to back in the fourth quarter, when the Black Bears are trying to kill the clock. In the two games, Fitzpatrick has carried the ball 22 times in the fourth quarter for 100 yards and a touchdown, also picking up five first downs.

The Black Bears apparently know better than to keep him off the field late in the game. “He gets that look in his eyes,” said Ferguson. “It’s a crazy look.”

“Yeah, we’ve leaned on him a little more then Ramon in those situations,” said Maine Coach Joe Harasymiak. “That’s because Joe just has that look in his eye that he wants the ball. Not that Ramon doesn’t. That’s just Joe’s game. That’s what Joe’s built for.”

“I believe in empowering the coaches and the kids,” said Charlton. “When Joe has that look in his eye, we want to empower him. If he’s got that look, we’re going to give him the ball. He plays the game very, very hard at everything he does. And when we need to get a first down, he’s the guy to get it.”

And Jefferson? He made sparked the comeback in the 31-28 win over Western Kentucky. With Maine trailing 21-0, he took a swing pass from Ferguson in the right flat and turned it into a 51-yard touchdown.

“That was a change-of-game play,” said Ferguson.

Western Kentucky had a cornerback blitz from the weak side. Both Jefferson and Ferguson recognized it. As Jefferson ran out of the backfield, he quickly turned in time for Ferguson to throw him the pass. Jefferson made the safety miss a tackle and went in for the score.

“That’s something we’ve been working on since I took the job, that specific route and play,” said Charlton. “They executed it very well.”

The offensive line has shined. Maine has given up only four sacks, and the Black Bears rank sixth among FCS schools in time of possession, holding the ball 34:35 per game.

“That’s been a huge help for our defense,” said defensive coordinator Corey Hetherman. “We’ve been fresh. Our guys can come off, get some rest and get ready to go.”

Ducos, a 6-6, 295-pound left tackle from Harrison and Oxford Hills High, said the coaches have the offensive line well prepared.

“They make the practices harder than the games,” he said. “I think the key is that we don’t want to lose.”

Ducos, a walk-on in 2016, was presented a half scholarship during preseason camp.

“It’s pretty special,” he said. “I appreciate the coaches giving me a chance to earn a scholarship and earn a spot on the team. It doesn’t happen to a lot of Maine guys.”

Fitzpatrick said he stopped worrying about the offensive line in spring football.

“I saw the potential and the growth the young linemen had made,” he said. “So I haven’t been super surprised when they took control of the line of scrimmage.”

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: MikeLowePPH

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