It has been a thoroughly unsatisfying season thus far for the University of Maine football team — and its fans.
The Black Bears have passed the halfway point of their schedule and head into their final five games with a 2-4 record, including a 1-2 mark in Colonial Athletic Association play.
Coach Jack Cosgrove’s team has been competitive, yet mistake-prone. UMaine also has been plagued by penalties and has been susceptible to giving up big plays at inopportune times.
This year’s squad also has been characterized by inconsistency.
While the philosophy of the coaching staff has been to address issues on a week-to-week, if not a day-to-day, basis, what happens during the next six weeks is critical in this team’s ability to establish itself as a consistent winner.
UMaine came into the season hoping to be able to challenge for the conference championship and a spot in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. Those goals are now likely unreachable.
There is very little room for numerous penalties or poor execution in the powerhouse CAA. This week, there are seven league teams ranked in the top 25 among FCS schools.
Of those, five reside this week among the top 10, including UMaine’s Homecoming opponent for Saturday, defending national champion Villanova, which is ranked sixth.
The Bears have already played the No. 2 (Delaware), No. 4 (William & Mary) and No. 16 (New Hampshire) teams in the nation. They beat the Wildcats and had the Tribe on the ropes but couldn’t hold on.
Even during UMaine’s recent playoff seasons (2000, 2001, 2008), one or two plays in three or four games meant the difference between qualifying for postseason rather than having a sub-.500 campaign.
This UMaine team doesn’t have the kind of chemistry necessary to win consistently. While some of the issues are tangible, there is clearly something missing when it comes to the Bears’ collective personality.
Some of that might be the result of the relatively small number of seniors playing starting roles on the team. UMaine has only two senior starters on offense (wide receivers Ty Jones and Des Randall) and three on defense (cornerbacks Steven Barker and Dominic Cusano and linebacker Mark Masterson (injured).
The poise, confidence and consistent performance that come with extensive game experience can’t be replaced and the Bears may not yet have quite enough of those elements.
UMaine is not without talent on both sides of the ball. Tailback Jared Turcotte could play for any team in the conference and linebackers Donte Dennis and Vinson Givans make up the one of the most tenacious linebacker duos in the CAA.
However, the Bears don’t have quite enough playmakers. Quarterback Warren Smith has cut down on interceptions, but those he throws have been costly and he has not been sharp on a game-to-game basis.
UMaine receivers have dropped numerous passes, including some for potential touchdowns, and the team lacks a speedy downfield threat who can stretch a defense. The offensive line is developing, but has been slowed some by injuries.
On defense, the Bears have been solid against the run, but far too forgiving against the pass. UMaine has been unable to get enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks and the secondary has frequently been susceptible to midrange passes.
While UMaine does not appear to feature any proven superstars bound for long, productive National Football League contracts, there are numerous underclassmen still learning their craft. Potential won’t, by itself, take a player or a team very far.
Thus, the challenge for the Bears the rest of the season is to try and maximize their potential.
UMaine must stop committing turnovers, avoid making sloppy mistakes and eradicate the major penalties that have combined to wipe out momentum-building offensive plays, put the offense in a hole and put undue pressure on the defense.
There’s no magic formula. It will only be through team-wide hard work, commitment, discipline and consistent execution that the Bears will develop into the team they want to be.