UMaine football battles Pittsburgh at Heinz Field today

Posted Sept. 09, 2011, at 7:23 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 10, 2011, at 7:08 a.m.

The University of Maine steps onto the big stage, while Maine Maritime Academy of Castine has the curtain go up on its 2011 season, highlighting Saturday’s football games involving Maine colleges.

Maine Black Bears (1-0) at Pittsburgh Panthers (1-0), 1 p.m., Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, Pa.: The Bears of the Football Championship Subdivision hope to overcome a disparity in overall size, speed and talent against the Panthers.

The annual game against a Bowl Championship Subdivision opponent carries a financial guarantee of $375,000, which goes into UMaine’s general athletic budget.

UMaine gained some confidence with a season-opening 28-13 win over Bryant, but now must intensify its efforts against the preseason favorite in the Big East Conference. A crowd of some 40,000 is expected at the home of the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Bears realize there is virtually no room for error when taking on a Bowl Championship Subdivision program.

“They’re bigger, faster than we are,” said UMaine head coach Jack Cosgrove. “We’re going to be tremendously challenged and it’s going to require that we perform at a very high level in all three phases of our team. We’re going to have to be very disciplined, as mistake-free as possible.”

The Bears will be challenged on all fronts. The UMaine defense must contend not only with a mammoth offensive line that averages 6-foot-5 1/2 and 309 pounds, but in trying to contain tailback Ray Graham.

Graham carried 29 times for 201 yards and three touchdowns in Pitt’s 35-16 win over Buffalo. He is capable of breaking one at any time.

“I thought Buffalo, for the most part, did a decent job on him,” Cosgrove said. “He showed he’s got the breakaway attribute.”

The Bears’ defense, led by linebackers Vinson Givans and Arron Achey and safety Jerron McMillian, also must deal with QB Tino Sunseri (16-for-28, 179 yards, 1 TD) and wideout Mike Shanahan (5 receptions, 85 yds., 1 TD) in the Panthers’ new spread scheme under first-year head coach Todd Graham.

Pitt also uses a hurry-up format that won’t leave the Bears with much time to make adjustments or catch their collective breath.

“They’re getting off plays about every 15 seconds,” Cosgrove said. “They’re a very high-octane group. We’re going to be challenged in that way, too.”

UMaine has been preparing to deal with that particular tactic.

Offensively, UMaine might have gained some optimism after Buffalo put up 403 yards and 28 first downs.

However, the Bears were a bit sporadic in their opener, especially in the second half.

Senior quarterback Warren Smith (14-for-20, 135 yds.) will again have to take care of the football and avoid turnovers, as he did against Bryant. The Bears will have to open some seams for senior tailback Pushaun Brown (26 carries, 146 yds., 2 TDs), who is going for his fifth consecutive 100-yard rushing effort.

UMaine also needs to distribute its throws to the likes of junior wide receiver Maurice McDonald (6 rec., 52 yds.), senior wideouts Derek Buttles (3-45) and Derek Session and sophomore tight end Justin Perillo (1-7).

Pitt’s defensive unit is big and fast. It includes mainstays in cornerback K’Waun Williams (9 tackles, 1 forced fumble), linebackers Max Gruder (8 tackles) and Brandon Lindsey (7) and defensive tackle Chas Alecxih (6 tackles, interception).

The other dynamic of some interest and concern for UMaine is the playing surface.

The Bears practice and play almost exclusively on artificial turf, which means adjusting to the footing with grass and soil could be the difference between making or missing a big tackle.

Anna Maria Amcats (0-1) at Maine Maritime Academy Mariners (0-0), noon, Ritchie Field, Castine: The Mariners play their long-awaited opener and are gunning for a fourth straight New England Football Conference Bogan Division title.

MMA faces an Anna Maria squad that is still looking for its first victory in program history early in its third season of play.

The keys for the Mariners are simple: run the ball, control it and the clock and put points on the scoreboard. Senior quarterback Matthew Rende of Augusta and senior halfback Nic Bourassa of Jay are MMA’s proven weapons in the triple-option attack.

The defensive unit is paced by a veteran nucleus of linebackers, paced by junior Joel Chadbourne of Westbrook and senior noseguard Chris Brawn of Winslow.

Anna Maria opened with a 55-30 loss to NEFC member Worcester State. The Amcats netted 362 yards of offense, including 243 through the air behind QB Santino Simone and wideout Dom Concepcion (8 catches, 131 yds., 2 TDs).

However, Anna Maria surrendered 362 yards on the ground and 522 yards overall. Mike Joseph’s 12 tackles led the defense.

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