It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why the 2011 University of Maine football team is off to a strong start.
Thus far, coach Jack Cosgrove’s Black Bears (2-1) are simply making fewer mistakes.
UMaine has distinguished itself during the first three weeks in two key areas — turnovers and penalties — or a lack of, to be precise.
The Bears rank first in the Colonial Athletic Association, having committed only one turnover. It came during Saturday night’s 31-15 victory at Albany, where Pushaun Brown fumbled when he was upended on a tackle.
“We had our first turnover of the year, but it was the only one of the game,” Cosgrove said Monday during the CAA coaches conference call. “To this point, having turned the ball over once is something that means something.”
UMaine is second in CAA turnover margin (takeaways minus giveaways), having intercepted five passes for a plus-four in that department. Only Delaware, the Bears’ next opponent, has a better ratio at plus-five.
Last season, UMaine coughed the ball up 21 times in 11 games and finished at a minus-seven. Only Towson — this season’s early surprise team in the CAA at 2-0 — was worse (minus-14).
The Bears also have learned the error of their ways in terms of penalties. They rank first in the conference, having averaged only 28.3 penalty yards per game.
UMaine has only committed 12 penalties in three games.
“We had three penalties Saturday, so again we’re really knocking that stuff out,” Cosgrove said.
The Bears often hampered their chances of winning a year ago by committing penalties that impacted games. In 2010, UMaine ranked 10th (last) in the CAA, incurring 72.5 yards per game in penalties.
Cosgrove explained that senior leadership and the team’s commitment to crisp execution and making better decisions on the field have been keys in the 2-1 start.
“We’ve got a strong senior class that really has tremendous influence over the rest of the guys and (is) doing a great job and getting the message out to them about the importance of this season and the attitude and the effort and, most importantly, the discipline level of our football team,” Cosgrove said. “We’re really making progress that way.”
BYE WEEK HAS MANY BENEFITS
This is a bye week for UMaine football and Cosgrove said the timing is good for a variety of reasons.
Perhaps the biggest concerns for the Bears are re-establishing good health and continuing to develop depth in some key areas.
UMaine came into the season already missing a handful of proven performers because of injuries and offseason surgery. That group included defensive linemen Kris Enslen, Brent Rice and Spencer Wood, along with linebacker Donte Dennis and tight end Jeff Falvey.
“(The bye) probably for us couldn’t come at a better time, based upon what I think is going to be the injury report,” Cosgrove conceded. “That’s a blessing and hopefully we get good enough news to transition that into a productive bye week practice and preparation time for Delaware in two weeks.”
Nani did not play against UAlbany and Achey saw limited action.
That Bears remain thin at defensive tackle where, as was the case at Pitt, seniors Raibonne Charles of Windham and Kevin Phanor were spelled Saturday only briefly by redshirt freshman Matthew Wilson.
That means UMaine needs some younger players to step up and fast-forward themselves in terms of readiness.
“We want to advance our depth,” Cosgrove said. “That’s critical this week, because a number of our first-team guys have been really stressed the last two weeks. They’ve played way too many reps for them to be as effective as we’d like them to be in the fourth quarter.”
That needs to happen during the next several days of practice leading up to the Oct. 1 Delaware game on Morse Field at Alfond Stadium in Orono.
The bye gives UMaine an opportunity to do some extra preparation for the perennially strong Blue Hens.
“They have our attention, believe me, and we will get onto that and be fortunate to be able to advance on them more than just one week,” Cosgrove said of the 2010 Football Championship Subdivision national runners-up. “That’s a blessing.”