Early this season, the University of Maine football team proved it had the ability to run the ball, with tailback Derek Session leading the charge.
More recently, with the emergence of sophomore quarterback Warren Smith, the Black Bears have demonstrated a more dynamic passing game.
Now, on the heels of three straight losses, UMaine must figure out how to effectively mix the run and the pass.
That is among the key lessons reinforced during Saturday night’s 27-17 Colonial Athletic Association loss to Delaware at Morse Field.
“We’re throwing the ball significantly more than we were three weeks ago,” said UMaine coach Jack Cosgrove, whose Bears are 2-3 overall, 1-1 in CAA play.
“I think that’s obviously the direction we’re headed and feel good about making that change. I’m disappointed about how we’re running the football right now.”
UMaine heads back out to the practice field today in the hope of establishing the right mix heading into Saturday’s road game at Hofstra (3-2, 1-1 CAA).
Offensive consistency has been a concern as the Bears transition from Mike Brusko to Smith at quarterback and as they seek a good chemistry up front with a group that features three underclassmen.
“We haven’t been able to get the right combination up front of guys who can run- and pass-block. Those are things that we’re working through,” Cosgrove said.
Smith had another solid game against Delaware, completing 23 of 36 passes for 258 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. He now has six TD passes and six interceptions in five games.
Wide receiver Landis Williams, one of only two senior starters on the UMaine offense, was outstanding against the Blue Hens. He made 10 catches for 104 yards, but had his streak of consecutive games with a TD reception snapped at three.
Williams (28 catches, 332 yards, 4 TDs) continues to lead the CAA in receptions per game (7.0), receiving yards per game (83.0) and scoring catches.
“We’ve just got to find a way to put it together as a team right now — offense, defense and special teams — so we can get it done,” Williams said. “I still see us making strides, getting better.”
The Bears cut way down on penalties against Delaware (4 for 22 yards) but still failed to execute in some key situations that might have helped them maintain the upper hand.
Cosgrove said UMaine’s inexperience, including 13 underclass starters (seven on offense, six on defense) has been a challenge. The Bears must overcome that if they want to challenge in the fiercely competitive CAA this fall.
“We’re hoping to grow up fast,” Cosgrove said. “We’re hoping to get better fast and we need to do things during the week that are going to help us do that. We’ve got some work to do to be able to throw punches with the good football teams in this league.”
Bears defense learning on the job
UMaine’s defense continues to be put to the test on a regular basis.
The unit was on the field for 80 plays against Delaware, including 44 in the second half.
The Hens hit the Bears for several lengthy pass plays, including a 79-yard scoring pass in the first quarter. Delaware was 6-for-14 on third down and 2-for-4 on fourth down.
The emerging leader of the UMaine defense is sophomore linebacker Donte Dennis. The 6-foot, 219-pounder was in on 23 tackles Saturday night.
He leads the Bears in that department and ranks second in the CAA with 57 tackles (11.4 per game).
“Donte stood in there hard,” Cosgrove said of his effort against the Hens. “I’ve never seen a guy with that many tackles.”
The UMaine defense appears to have taken some injury hits from the Delaware game.
Junior cornerback Dom Cusano left the contest with an apparent head injury after making a tackle. Redshirt freshman end Kris Enslen and senior tackle Eric Lee left the game with leg injuries.
Senior linebacker Mark Masterson missed his third consecutive game with an ankle injury. He was hurt Sept. 5 at Northeastern.
Black Bears receive high praise
Delaware coach K.C. Keeler was quick to dole out compliments to the Bears after Saturday’s victory in Orono.
He said UMaine, while young in many spots, is developing into what will be a formidable opponent for CAA teams.
“I’m glad they’re off our [scheduling] cycle for another two years, because when those kids become juniors and seniors, Jack’s going to have a heck of a football team on his hands,” Keeler said.
In 2010 an 2011, UMaine will play Villanova, William & Mary and Towson instead of Delaware, Richmond and James Madison.