ORONO — The front seven of the University of Maine’s defense has earned its share of headlines this year. And rightfully so.

With linebackers Sterling Sheffield, Deshawn Stevens and Taji Lowe and linemen Kayon Whitaker, Jamehl Whiley, Alejandro Oregon and Charles Mitchell leading the way, the Black Bears have become a disruptive unit.

The Black Bears (10-3) bring the nation’s ninth-rated defense – and best against the run – into Saturday’s NCAA Football Championship Subdivision semifinal at Eastern Washington (11-2). Maine allows 293.5 yards per game, and just 68.7 yards against the run. The defense is ranked second in sacks and tied for the lead in tackles for a loss.

But don’t overlook Maine’s secondary.

Maine had a season-high four interceptions – two by senior strong safety Jeff DeVaughn – in last week’s 23-18 victory at Weber State in the FCS quarterfinals. That gives Maine 17 picks for the season, tied for ninth in the nation. And that has caught the attention of Eastern Washington Coach Aaron Best, whose team averages 44.1 points a game.

“That’s hard to do when you play man-to-man defense most of the time,” Best said. “It’s not like when you play a zone and you have guys reading the quarterback and jumping routes. You get more interceptions. They’re crafty and they’re ballhawks.”

Maine’s Manny Patterson is up for any challenge. “When my coach tells me, ‘It’s all on you,’ I love those situations,” he said.

Cornerbacks Manny Patterson, a junior from Baltimore, and Katley Joseph, a freshman from Ottawa, have been locking down their receivers. Safeties Darrius Hart, a senior from Toms River, New Jersey, and DeVaughn, a grad student from Folcroft, Pennsylvania, are fourth and fifth on the team in tackles.

Patterson knows the secondary often gets overlooked. And he’s all right with that. “As long as everybody executes, that’s all that matters to me,” he said. “I love this group … It’s great being out there with them.”

The 5-10, 178-pound Patterson is the recognized star of the unit, leading the nation in passes defended, with 24 (that includes two interceptions). He has covered the top receivers of Maine’s first two playoff opponents – Jacksonville State’s Josh Pearson (63 catches, 1,061 yards and 17 touchdowns) and Weber State’s Rashid Shaheed (36 catches, 423 yards, five touchdowns) – and has taken them out of the game. Pearson had four catches for 62 yards and Shaheed five for 19. Patterson is likely to cover Eastern Washington’s Nsimba Webster, who has 79 catches for 1,099 yards and seven touchdowns.

“That’s been my challenge to him, to take away the No. 1 guy,” said Matt Birkett, Maine’s defensive backs coach. “And when I look in his eyes, there is no doubt he is up for the challenge. He lives for it.”

“When my coach tells me, ‘It’s all on you,’ I love those situations,” said Patterson, who has started since his freshman year. “I love those one-on-one challenges. In order for you to be better, you’re going to have to beat me.”

The 5-11, 180-pound Joseph – who had seven tackles and four pass break-ups last week in his best game – has been a find. He took over opposite Patterson in Maine’s fourth game after Jordan Swann went down with a season-ending injury. He is second on the team with 12 pass breakups.

DeVaughn and Hart are three-year starters and Birkett said their experience has been vital. “There are so many calls and checks and little tweaks within each rep that we take,” said Birkett. “Just being able to get us lined up each play has given us a shot, just making sure we’re on the same page.”

The Black Bears enter each game looking to take away an opponent’s running game and make its offense one-dimensional. They want to force the other team to pass. And, DeVaughn said, the defensive backs are waiting.

“You try to throw the ball, it isn’t going to be easy,” he said. “We take pride in that.”

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: MikeLowePPH


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