ORONO, Maine — Third down is a critical one for defenses.
Success on third down means opponents have to punt and no points went on the scoreboard.
University of Maine football coach Jack Cosgrove refers to third down as “money down,” the one on which players earn their keep.
During the last two seasons, whether on the practice field or in games, Mark Masterson, aka “Money Down,” has come up with big plays, many of them in third-down situations.
“The nickname comes for a reason. You earn your nickname,” said Cosgrove, who in the spring of 2008 placed the moniker on the Black Bears’ linebacker. “He intercepted a pass last year, ran it back for a touchdown. He’s a guy that’s got a great gift in that regard.”
Masterson hopes to impose himself on opponents again this season as he mans the middle for UMaine. He’ll be a key as the Bears take on Northeastern in Saturday’s Colonial Athletic Association opener at Northeastern in Brookline, Mass.
For Masterson, being called “Money Down” by Cosgrove and his teammates is a badge of honor.
“I guess I happened to make plays on third down routinely,” said the 6-foot-3, 232-pounder out of Williamstown, N.J. “The nickname stuck. Some of the kids on the team say I have a knack for the ball. I say it’s instincts.”
Masterson is a force on the UMaine defense. Last season, he started all 13 games at the rover spot, ranking fifth on the squad with 68 tackles. He also had seven pass breakups, an interception, two fumble recoveries and a forced fumble.
This year, Masterson has moved to middle linebacker, a position of more responsibility within the defensive scheme. He made eight tackles in the Bears’ opening-game victory.
“I make all the checks and most of the calls,” he said. “I’m a senior now, so I’m expected to help out some of the younger guys if they’re having trouble and be a leader on the field.”
Masterson, who appeared in all 11 games on special teams as a true freshman in 2006, earned more playing time at linebacker as a sophomore, including making four starts.
Cosgrove said Masterson has adapted to whatever role he has been placed in and has excelled.
“He’s a smart player in his assignments and his techniques and fitting in where he needs to be,” Cosgrove said. “He’s been very versatile for us, playing a variety of spots and playing them all well.”
Masterson not only has a knack for being in the right place at the right time, he is strong enough and fast enough to get there.
“He runs well sideline to sideline,” Cosgrove said.
Masterson is trying to uphold the tradition of his predecessors in a couple of different ways.
First, being among only a handful of seasoned veterans on defense means he must consistently perform well and be able to set the tone for the younger players on the unit. That is a responsibility he takes seriously.
And while he isn’t a rah-rah vocal type of leader, Masterson knows how to set a good example.
“Part of you feels like you carry on a legacy of how Maine football is to be run. Your job is to show the young guys how it’s done.”
Masterson also is trying to live up to high standards by wearing jersey No. 4. The number, which has been worn by such UMaine greats as Stephen Cooper (now of the NFL’s San Diego Chargers), was handed down to him by the coaching staff.
“I took it as a signal that they were expecting me to take the next step and take on more responsibility as a player,” Masterson said. “It gave me confidence that the coaches thought I should wear that number.”
As far as football is concerned, Masterson was a late bloomer. He didn’t even start playing the game until his freshman year of high school.
He also was a good basketball player, but by the time he was a senior — he was a quarterback, defensive back, punter and place-kicker — he helped lead Williamstown to a school-record eight victories.
He was recruited by UMaine, along with Patriot League schools Holy Cross, Bucknell and Lafayette. But he chose UMaine for its family atmosphere.
“The team was really close. That was a big selling point for me,” said Masterson, who committed the day after his visit. “I felt that the coaches really cared about the players.”
Masterson credits his parents, Mark and Kimberly, with providing a strong support system that aided his athletic development. The kinesiology and physical education/sports administration major is excited about the opportunity to help the Black Bears reach their potential this season.
“He does things with a ton of energy and excitement and enthusiasm,” Cosgrove said. “He always models the right things. He takes care of business.”