The University of Maine football team feels fortunate to have escaped its season opener with a victory.
While the Black Bears showed poise and determination to prevail 34-27 in overtime against Division II St. Cloud State, the game was an eye-opener in terms of UMaine’s early-season shortcomings.
To their credit, coach Jack Cosgrove’s Bears did not fold despite repeated challenges by the Huskies. UMaine was forced to come from behind four times in the contest.
“Obviously, we’ve got a lot of areas to shore up,” Cosgrove said. “I’ve always felt that it’s easier to go to work with a win under your belt than it is with a loss.”
The scary part is, UMaine was originally scheduled to open the season at Atlantic Coast Conference power Florida State. That likely would have been ugly.
Cosgrove conceded the Bears have many things to iron out heading into next weekend’s Colonial Athletic Association opener at Northeastern. The big point of emphasis is likely to be the defense.
“We were very tentative, not just a bit,” Cosgrove said of the Bears’ secondary. “I don’t think they played as aggressively as they can, but they will. They’re going to have to. It is something that’s going to be a focal point for us in terms of improving.”
The youthful defense — which features only four returning full-time starters — had its hands full with a solid St. Cloud State squad.
The Huskies demonstrated good balance, rushing for 140 yards and throwing for 222. UMaine’s cornerbacks had their hands full trying to contain 6-foot-1 wide receiver Fred Williams, who made 15 catches for 171 yards and a touchdown.
Even though UMaine registered two sacks, Cosgrove didn’t think his team put enough pressure on Huskies quarterback Mitch Watkins (22-for-36, 222 yards).
“I think we lacked a little bit of consistency throughout the game, especially up front,” said senior co-captain and defensive end Jordan Stevens of Temple.
“When [Watkins] got outside the pocket, that’s when he was making most of his completions,” he added.
In the UMaine secondary, senior cornerback Troy Harris was making his first career start, while junior corners Steven Barker and Dom Cusano had made a combined six starts.
Barker sat out all of 2008 after a shoulder injury, while Cusano played in only three games before suffering a season-ending anterior cruciate ligament knee injury.
Sophomore free safety Trevor Coston played in only two games as a backup last year before missing the year with an injury, while sophomore strong safety Jerron McMillian was a situational player.
“I didn’t think [the Huskies] were going to perform as well as they did throwing and catching,” Cosgrove said. “The combination of [their] execution with out inexperience kind of led to them [having success].”
UMaine’s seniors set the defensive tone as linebacker Brandon McLaughlin posted 13 tackles, including 1.5 sacks, and forced a fumble. Linebacker Mark Masterson had eight tackles, including 1.5 for a loss of yardage, while Stevens had four tackles (half a sack), a fumble recovery and a pass breakup.
Sophomore linebacker Donte Dennis exceeded his season total from 2008 (nine games) with 10 tackles, while redshirt freshman end Kris Enslen had eight tackles and Coston six.
Offensively, UMaine seemed to gain momentum as the game progressed, despite being without three key starters. Sophomore fullback Jared Turcotte of Lewiston (groin), senior wide receiver Landis Williams (hand) and sophomore tight end Derek Buttles (violation of the UMaine Student-Athlete Code of Conduct) all sat out.
The Bears demonstrated growth on the offensive line where redshirt freshman center Garrett Williamson and right tackle Matt Spearin of Limington got their baptism.
After netting only 14 yards on its first four possessions, UMaine registered two field goals and two TDs in its last six possessions, which included a punt and an interception.
“I felt like toward the end of the game, we wanted it more up front,” said senior quarterback Mike Brusko.
“We had the same five offensive linemen out there just pounding them. Give all the credit in the world to them,” he added.
The line, which also featured left tackle Tyler Eastman of Old Town, left guard Matt Barber and right guard Steve Shea of Corinna, paved the way for sophomore tailback Derek Session to rush for a career-best 124 yards on 22 carries.
Brusko churned out 64 yards rushing and scored twice. He also completed nine of 13 passes for 101 yards with one interception.
Another bright spot was place-kicker Jordan Waxman. The left-footed sophomore booted field goals of 30 and 38 yards, the second coming as time was running out in the first half. He also was 4-for-4 on PAT kicks.