Sterling Sheffield can’t think of a better way to play the final regular-season game of his football career at the University of Maine.

The Black Bears play Elon at noon Saturday at Alfond Stadium with a chance to win the Colonial Athletic Association championship. A Maine win gives it the title – and the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA playoffs. A loss and Maine could still clinch the championship but would need to go through a series of tiebreakers.

All Sheffield knows is that the championship is there for Maine’s taking.

“We need to execute, to come out from the start and show them that we mean business,” said Sheffield, a senior linebacker who is second on the team in tackles with 60. “As long as we execute, with our talent, we’ll take over.”

This promises to be a physical game, matching the CAA’s best run defense (Maine, second in the nation, allowing 65.4 yards per game) against the CAA’s best run offense (Elon, 22nd in the nation, averaging 221.2 yards). “Something’s got to give,” said Maine Coach Joe Harasymiak.

With eight starters returning, the Black Bears knew this defense had potential. And they haven’t disappointed. In addition to its lofty run defense ranking, Maine is ranked third nationally in total defense (263.5 yards per game), third in sacks (3.8 per game) and 11th in third-down defense (29 percent). Maine’s 38 sacks lead the CAA – Elon is second with 32 – as does the 236 yards those sacks have produced.

Sheffield leads the CAA with 8.5 sacks while defensive end Kayon Whitaker has 7.5 and linebacker Deshawn Stevens has 7.0. Stevens (12.5) and Sheffield (12.0) are among the top 4 in the CAA in tackles for a loss.

“We knew we had the talent to be a top defense in the country,” said Sheffield. “This is nothing new, not in our locker room.”

Harasymiak said there are two primary reasons why Maine’s defense has stood tall this year.

“I think there’s the experience factor,” he said. “All those guys, this is their third year in quality minutes, That experience, seeing things and growing together, is important.

“Secondly, it’s the violence we play with. We’ve got to run to the ball and we’re certainly doing that.”

Defensive coordinator Corey Hetherman agreed: “We’ve been violent, physical and playing well.”

Hetherman added that the Black Bears have tackled very well this year. “And we haven’t had that in past years,” he said. “Our kids get to the ball and finish very well.”

The leaders of the defense have been the linebackers: Sheffield, Stevens (77 tackles), Taji Lowe (53 tackles) and Jaron Grayer (32 tackles). They’ve been aided by a defensive line that has done a great job in protecting the linebackers.

“They’ve been great at eating up combos, staying on double teams and freeing the other guys up,” said Hetherman.

Whitaker and Jamehl Wiley start at defensive end, with Charles Mitchell and Alejandro Oregon inside. Skylar Bowman and Connor Walsh have added great depth there.

They’re going to have to be at their best against Elon.

The Phoenix altered their offense dramatically four weeks ago when starting quarterback Davis Cheek, last year’s CAA offensive rookie of the year, suffered a season-ending knee injury against Delaware. Since then Elon has gone almost exclusively to the run.

With Jalen Greene at quarterback the last three games, Elon has run the ball 145 times and passed 38, completing just 15 for 270 yards.

Freshman Jaylan Thomas has stepped in for injured running back Malcolm Summers and rushed for 445 yards the last three games. Greene provides a strong threat on the run-pass option as well.

“They challenge you in a lot of different ways,” said Hetherman.

Elon Coach Curt Cignetti realizes that Maine’s run defense is tough. But he said it would be ill advised to overlook the secondary. “They’re highly-rated in all components of defense,” he said. “People have had a hard time running the football but they’ve had a hard time passing it too. They get up in your face and challenge you and you’ve got to complete some balls in the pass game down the field on them and still run the football.”

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: MikeLowePPH

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