ORONO — Much of the hype around the University of Maine football team during the first month of the season centered around the success of the offense and the play of senior quarterback Warren Smith and senior tailback Pushaun Brown.
The Black Bears’ opportunistic defense also has been a critical component in their 3-1 start.
On Saturday, UMaine limited then-No. 5 Delaware to 278 total yards and came up with four interceptions to help the Bears register what they hope will be a momentum-building 31-17 victory at Alfond Stadium.
The win was the first for UMaine (1-0 CAA) over an opponent ranked in the top five since an NCAA playoff victory at Appalachian State in 2002. It vaulted coach Jack Cosgrove’s team up to No. 19 in The Sports Network/Fathead.com Football Championship Subdivision Top 25.
UMaine is among eight CAA teams ranked in the TSN poll, joining New Hampshire (No. 6), James Madison (7), William & Mary (9), Delaware (13), Richmond (14), Old Dominion (21) and upstart Towson (25).
“Planning is under way now for a great team, James Madison, and whatever happens along the way is immaterial to what we can control,” Cosgrove said of a potential ranking. “It’s really what we can do on Saturday.”
UMaine is not ranked in the FCS coaches poll, but was one spot outside the top 25.
Perhaps the most important component of UMaine’s defensive efforts through four games has been its big-play capabilities. Safeties Jerron McMillian and Trevor Coston, cornerback Darlos James and linebacker Vinson Givans each made an interception against Delaware, pushing the Bears’ season total to nine.
“Coston’s interception and McMillian’s interception (against Delaware) were just (examples of) guys with great athletic ability and speed,” Cosgrove said. “They’re making huge plays and those two guys are outstanding players.”
UMaine had eight interceptions — and forced only 14 total turnovers — in 11 games last season. The Bears ranked eighth in CAA turnover margin at minus-seven.
They appear to be turning that dynamic around as the Bears check in at plus-six, tops in the conference.
Senior experience is present at all three levels of the UMaine defense, with Coston and McMillian anchoring the secondary, Givans patrolling the middle and seniors Raibonne Charles of Windham, Kevin Phanor and Ryan Nani heading up the front line.
Coston and junior cornerback Darlos James lead the team with three interceptions each and sophomore corner Kendall James has one. UMaine cornerbacks did not register an interception last year.
The turnovers were critical in keeping Delaware off the scoreboard.
The first, by Coston, snuffed out a drive at the UMaine 11-yard line. The next one, late in the first half, was made by Darlos James at the UM 22.
Givans’ interception at the UM 18 led to a score that gave the Bears an 11-point lead in the fourth quarter and the last one, by McMillian, set the stage for a clinching, 30-yard field goal by Brian Harvey.
“We’ve been a team with tremendous work ethic and our attitude and our discipline have really carried us,” Cosgrove said.
The secondary’s job was made easier — and Delaware quarterback Tim Donnelly’s task much harder — by a strong pass rush generated by the defensive front.
Charles had two quarterback sacks among his five tackles and Craig Capella added a sack. Ends Doug Alston, Michael Cole and Erwin Roach, and tackle Kevin Phanor also were part of the big push.
Donnelly often avoided sacks by getting rid of the ball at the last second with a pass-rusher in his face.
“Give them a lot of credit. I thought they got more pressure on us than I thought they would, especially doing some three-man-line stuff,” said Delaware head coach K.C. Keeler.
The Bears also welcomed back sixth-year defensive tackle Ryan Nani, albeit in a reduced role, against Delaware. He returned from a left elbow injury to spell Charles and Phanor inside.
“The defense was relentless,” Cosgrove said. “We were a little bit concerned with the pass rush, wearing us down a little bit, their O-line, but the heartbeat came out in the fourth quarter, big-time. We had great pressure on the quarterback and tipped balls, interceptions, great field position.”
UMaine ranks fourth in CAA total defense, giving up 311.2 yards per game. The Bears are third against the run (111.5 ypg).
Up next for the Bears is Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. game at James Madison’s Bridgeforth Stadium in Harrisonburg, Va.