When the University of Maine and Towson University met on the football field last season, there was little on the line other than pride and bragging rights.
This time around, the two surprise teams in the Colonial Athletic Association are battling for first place in the conference.
The seventh-ranked Black Bears put their six-game winning streak on the line when they meet the No. 14 Tigers in a key CAA matchup on Saturday’s schedule of games involving Maine colleges.
TOWSON Tigers (6-2) at Maine Black Bears (7-1), 12:30 p.m., Alfond Stadium, Orono: Coach Jack Cosgrove’s team (5-0 CAA) faces what may be its toughest test of the season thus far against the upstart Tigers.
UMaine comes in with momentum after last Saturday’s “Snow Bowl” at Villanova, but encounters its fourth top-20 team in the last six weeks. Towson is coming off a 35-30 home loss to then-No. 21 Delaware.
Towson, which has played four consecutive top-25 teams, is a multifaceted offensive squad that ranks 10th in Football Championship Subdivision total offense at 441.5 yards per game. That includes being 11th in rushing (226.5 ypg) and 28th in scoring.
“They run the football very well and they throw the ball well. Their quarterback is a key reason why they’re successful,” said Cosgrove.
The Bears must try to contain a unit that features freshman tailback Terrance West , the frontrunner for CAA Rookie of the Year. He is fourth in the league while carrying 120 times for 746 yards and a CAA-best 18 touchdowns.
“This guy’s as good as all of them (the backs UMaine has faced),” Cosgrove said. “He’s got great cutback ability, field vision.”
West is complemented by Dominique Booker (57-316-2).
UMaine, which features the senior trio of safeties Jerron McMillian (team-leading 62 tackles, 1 interception) and Trevor Coston (55 tackles, 5 INTs) and linebacker Vinson Givans (56 tackles, 2 INTs), also must keep close tabs on Towson sophomore quarterback Grant Enders (113-for-167, 1,388 yards, 9 touchdowns, 6 interceptions), who also is a threat to tuck the ball and run.
The Tigers have several pass-catching threats, namely Tom Ryan (29 receptions, 435 yds., 1 TD) and Leon Kinnard (23-233-0). Towson has scored 30 or more points in every game this season with the exception of a 28-3 loss to Maryland of the Atlantic Coast Conference on Oct. 1.
The UMaine offense has been productive, ranking 25th in FCS passing (250.54 ypg), 37th in scoring (29.4 ppg) and 41st in total offense (380.4 ypg).
The key for the Bears is establishing the ground game behind senior tailback Pushaun Brown, the CAA’s No. 5 rusher (147-723-8). That would make life easier for senior QB Warren Smith (174-for-263, 2,003 yds., 14 TDs, 4 INTs.) to throw to the likes of junior wide receiver Maurice McDonald (53-542-5), sophomore tight end Justin Perillo (33-342-3) and senior receiver Derek Session (27-336-2).
However, Towson has been solid on defense, giving up 22.9 points and 346.4 yards per outing.
“They’re aggressive on defense, very aggressive,” Cosgrove said of a Tigers unit that uses multiple looks and pressure schemes in an attempt to keep its opponents off balance.
Towson’s top playmakers include safety Jordan Dangerfield (54 tackles) and linebackers Danzel White (49), Alexander DiSanzo (47) and Romale Tucker (51).
UMaine is trying to post an 8-1 start for the first time since 2002 and go 6-0 in league play for the first time since 1989.
COAST Guard Cadets (1-7) at Maine Maritime Academy Mariners (4-4), noon, Ritchie Field, Castine: Coach Chris McKenney’s MMA team, which has lost three straight and four of five, closes out the regular season. For the first time in four seasons, the Mariners will not finish as the NEFC Bogan Division champions.
The Mariners’ offense has struggled with senior QB Matthew Rende of Augusta dealing with an injury the past three weeks. MMA has managed only 20 points in that time frame, including last week’s 27-0 shutout loss to Bridgewater State.
The Mariners still rank No. 7 in Division III rushing (295.8 ypg), led by sophomore fullback Ian Champeon of Dover-Foxcroft (106-770-4) and senior halfback Nick Bourassa of Jay (78-562-6). Rende (141-645-8) has been spelled of late by sophomore Ben Violette.
The MMA defense, headed up by safety Alex Hermes (62 tackles, 3 INTs), junior linebacker Joel Chadbourne (55-1) of Westbrook and junior LB Brock Lawrence of Benton (53-2). The Mariners encounter a Coast Guard offense led by QB Jarrod Owens (113-for-197, 1,207 yds., 8 TDs, 6 INTs), RB Tyler Hames (111-575-6) and WR Erik Gerken (60-607-6).
The Cadets have lost five in a row.
HUSSON Eagles (0-8) at Castleton State Spartans (2-3), noon, Spartan Stadium, Castleton, Vt.: Coach Sean Murphy’s Eagles will try to halt a 12-game losing streak in their last game of 2011.
Husson has not been able to overcome its youth, inexperience and numerous injuries. The Eagles have been paced offensively by junior quarterback Kash Keezer of Veazie (101-for-239, 1,121 yds., 6TDs, 19 INTs.) and wideouts Lamar Richards (19-143-0), Ben Foss of Wales (17-266-1) and Audie Murphy (16-260-3) of Biddeford.
On defense, linebackers Stephan Dance (73 tackles) and Jason Nickola (52) and senior DE Chris Dalecki of South Berwick (48) have set the tone.
Castleton State has the league’s most productive QB in Shane Brozowski (182-for-292, 2,037 yds., 22 TDs, 9 INTs). His top targets include WRs Brandon Boyle (59-721-7) and Mike Patterson (24-314-3).
Today’s other games, 12:30 p.m.: Bowdoin(3-3) at Bates (2-4), Tufts (0-6) at Colby (2-4).