The disappointment was evident in the faces of University of Maine football players after Saturday’s 40-30 loss to Towson at Alfond Stadium.
The six-game winning streak is over, the national ranking has slipped (to No. 13) and the loss stings, but UMaine is viewing the game as another rite of passage that comes with playing in the Colonial Athletic Assocation.
“Every week this year, I think, has presented us with a learning experience: Going through comebacks, going through weather, whatever it is, and here’s another one of them,” Cosgrove said. “We got beat by a very good football team and (the question is), how are we going to respond to that?”
With two games to play, UMaine remains very much in the hunt for the conference championship and is still likely to earn an NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoff spot one way or the other.
UMaine, Towson and New Hampshire each boasts a 7-2 overall record and a 5-1 league mark. The Tigers can clinch a share of the title — and the NCAA automatic bid — with a victory over the Wildcats on Saturday and one more loss by the Bears.
That would give Towson victories over the other three contenders, including Old Dominion (8-2, 5-2 CAA), which is coached by former UMaine quarterback and assistant coach Bobby Wilder, a Madison native.
This week, the Black Bears are gearing up for their final conference game ever against traditional New England rival Massachusetts. The Minutemen are bound for the Bowl Championship Subdivision next season as a member of the Mid-American Conference, thus they are not eligible for postseason play.
If UMaine beats UMass and UNH gets past Towson on Saturday, that would set up a winner-take-all matchup Nov. 19 in Durham, N.H., when the Bears and Wildcats collide for the Brice-Cowell Musket and the automatic playoff berth.
Of course, nobody in Orono is looking past the UMass game, one that brings with it a sense of regional football history dating back to the first meeting in 1909.
Cosgrove has seen enough of this team to know it won’t allow one loss dampen its work ethic or enthusiasm in chasing its collective goals.
“There’s substance to this group,” he said. “They have the essential qualities that I think are necessary to be a winner: Their attitude, their effort, their discipline; their willingness to sacrifice and work for each other. Those things haven’t changed because we’ve lost. Those things will be the foundation of who we are.”
On Saturday, the Bears’ defense struggled against the league’s top rushing attack, which featured sizeable holes up front and big, strong running backs who were difficult to tackle. UMaine must shore up that element of its game moving forward.
UMaine, which was without starting senior tailback Pushaun Brown because of a thigh injury, also lacked the clutch-play capability that had been evident in a handful of previous games.
The Bears turned the ball over a season-high three times, two of which led directly to Towson touchdowns. Among them were two interceptions by senior quarterback Warren Smith.
The Bears need to continue refining their schemes and their skills in practice to get back on the winning track.
“You’ve got to play with an edge. You’ve got to play tough. You’ve got to play physical,” Cosgrove said.
He hopes the Towson game provides his players with additional motivation for the stretch run.
“I expect our guys to rebound,” he said.
“We don’t feel good right now about getting beat by Towson. You expect a (positive) response.”