The mantra of the University of Maine football team of late has been “finish.”
After experiencing second-half struggles in losses to Albany, Syracuse and Delaware, the Black Bears made it to “00:00” Saturday afternoon while still holding the lead.
UMaine’s 16-14 Colonial Athletic Association victory at Hofstra was another example of a young squad beginning to develop a personality.
Coach Jack Cosgrove’s Bears (3-3, 2-1 CAA) battled hard on defense while coming up with seven turnovers and the offensive unit put up some key fourth-quarter points to preserve the victory.
“It was really special to see them persevere then,” Cosgrove said. “We made the plays that we had to, which we hadn’t in the past.”
UMaine is gearing up for Saturday’s noon homecoming game against defending Football Championship Subdivision national champion and top-ranked Richmond.
The performance by the defense was somewhat enigmatic.
Even though UMaine allowed only two touchdowns, Hofstra was able to pile up some impressive statistical numbers.
The Pride rolled up 32 first downs behind a balanced attack that nearly featured two 100-yard rushers and a 200-yard passer. Hofstra finished with 533 total yards.
“Two weeks in a row, we broke 1,000 yards [combined],” Cosgrove quipped.
“I know we’re not going to get a lot of style points for it, but we don’t care about that.”
The developing defense demonstrated some of its big-play abilities. Sophomore linebacker Donte Dennis made two interceptions and recovered a fumble among seven Hofstra turnovers. Six of those came on consecutive possessions.
Despite missing three starters (Mark Masterson, Kris Enslen and Dom Cusano) because of injuries, UMaine still managed two sacks of Hofstra quarterback Cory Christopher (one by end Doug Alston and one-half each by Kevin Phanor and Eric Lee).
“You’ve just got to keep saying, ‘we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it,’ and we got it done,” said Dennis, who ranks second in the CAA with 11.2 tackles per game.
The Bears held the Pride to 5-for-13 efficiency on third down and twice escaped unscathed after Hofstra reached the red zone (inside the Bears’ 20-yard line).
“I’m really proud of the amount of time they were on the field, the amount of plays, but [that] they still had enough in the tank at the end to do the things they needed to do,” Cosgrove said.
Alston, a redshirt freshman, made his first career start Saturday, while first-year player Erwin Roach made his collegiate debut, also at defensive end.
Smith shoulders the load
The offense continued to struggle with consistency at Hofstra, but sophomore quarterback Warren Smith again proved he is ready and capable of leading the unit.
With the Bears unable to run the ball effectively, Cosgrove instead relied on Smith to showcase his skills both as a passer and a ballcarrier.
“We got into the third quarter and we were really struggling running the football,” Cosgrove said after UMaine fumbled on its first possession of the second half and went three-and-out on the other.
“I told [offensive coordinator] Kevin [Bourgoin], ‘just put it on Warren’s back, let’s throw the football.’ I felt that was our best chance for success.”
Smith (16 carries, 82 yards rushing; 15-for-25 passing, 189 yards, two touchdowns) either ran the ball himself or threw a pass on 18 of the Bears’ last 19 plays from scrimmage.
He was intercepted once throwing into a stiff wind, but proved both shifty and tough running the ball to help UMaine set up the eventual game-winning field goal.
“I’m really excited about Warren Smith and his development,” Cosgrove said. “Other than that [interception], I thought he played a really fine football game.”
Rich Nagy now on Hofstra staff
Cosgrove took a few minutes after Saturday’s game to visit with Pride defensive coordinator Rich Nagy, his wife Erika (Hurtubise) and their daughters Jordan and Erin.
Nagy joined the Hofstra staff this season after spending three years as the defensive coordinator at Murray State in Kentucky.
Prior to joining the Racers, Nagy had done a five-year stint under Cosgrove on the UMaine coaching staff.
“He’s a great person, a great friend, and you’re very fortunate to have him here,” Cosgrove told the Hofstra media on Saturday. “I miss him up in Maine.”