ORONO — The football season is 12 weeks long, but perhaps no game is more important than the first one.
One year after laying an egg in its opener, the University of Maine football team wants to make an early statement as it kicks off the 2011 season Saturday afternoon.
Bryant Bulldogs (0-0) at Maine Black Bears (0-0), 5 p.m., Alfond Stadium, Orono: UMaine rolls out an experienced yet unproven lineup as it welcomes a program that three years ago made the upgrade to Division I.
UMaine will have the services Saturday of All-Colonial Athletic Association safety Jerron McMillian, who had previously been suspended for one game by athletic director Steve Abbott for his involvement in a Dec. 4, 2010, incident at Curva Ultra Lounge in Orono.
McMillian, now a senior, initially was charged by Orono police with disorderly conduct, assault and failure to submit to arrest. However, he eventually had all charges against him dismissed.
Abbott said since McMillian had fulfilled a community service requirement under the UMaine Student-Athlete Code of Conduct, he felt lifting the suspension was appropriate.
McMillian also was sanctioned by the UMaine Dean of Students office as a result of the incident for violations of the UMaine Student Code of Conduct. He was placed on “deferred suspension,” which meant he was assigned to programming in anger management, situational leadership and problem-solving.
McMillian was allowed to join the football team for spring practices in April after complying with the terms of that arrangement.
To help avert a shaky start, UMaine tweaked its training camp approach after performing poorly in its 2010 opener against Albany. The 3-0 loss set a bad tone for the season.
“We did evaluate our start last year, our camp, because we felt as though we didn’t do a good enough job preparing our guys to play,” said UMaine head coach Jack Cosgrove. “We practiced and prepared for an opponent that wants to come up here and win on our football field.”
The Bears are out to demonstrate that the penalties and turnovers they committed in 2010, and the back-breaking plays they allowed, are things of the past.
UMaine encounters a squad from Bryant University, in Smithfield, R.I., that plays in the Northeast Conference. That league allows a maximum of 40 scholarships, which means the Bears have more wherewithal, on paper, in terms of talent and depth.
Nonetheless, the Bears have the utmost respect for the Bulldogs, who have 16 starters back in the fold.
“They were a 7-4 team last year and their signature wins were over Fordham in the Patriot League and Robert Morris, their league’s (NEC) first-ever playoff participant,” Cosgrove said. “They beat Albany as well, a team that beat us.”
Senior quarterback Warren Smith directs UMaine’s spread offense, which features senior tailback Pushaun Brown, senior wide receivers Derek Session and Derek Buttles and sophomore tight end Justin Perillo.
Bryant, chosen to finish fifth this season in the NEC, has a defense headed by senior linebacker Franck Tebou (55 tackles) and preseason all-conference defensive backs Samad Wagstaff and Max Machado, each of whom had four interceptions a year ago. The Bulldogs were second in turnover margin in the NEC.
UMaine’s defense has a solid corps of veterans led by safeties McMillian and Trevor Coston, linebacker Vinson Givans and tackle Raibonne Charles of Windham. The unit, which features a handful of underclassmen, encounters a Bryant offense that thrives on running the ball.
The Bulldogs feature junior running back Jordan Brown, who led the NEC with 1,410 rushing yards and 15 TDs last season en route to all-league, first-team honors.
“Their tailback is outstanding,” Cosgrove said. “They do a lot of things with him. He’s going to catch the ball and he’s going to return punts. He’ll obviously be a big concern for us when he’s on the football field.”
Starting quarterback Mike Croce is sidelined by an injury, which thrusts sophomore Mike Westerhaus into the mix for his first collegiate start. Bryant also returns its top two receivers, sophomore wideout Jordan Harris (25 receptions, 467 yards, 2 TDs) and senior tight end Matt Tracey (30-382-5).