There was an extended period of time Saturday afternoon that the University of Maine didn’t look much like a playoff team.
The Black Bears had trouble establishing an offensive rhythm, didn’t capitalize on scoring chances and were somewhat forgiving on defense.
As it has done most of the season, coach Jack Cosgrove’s team put it all together late in the game. The Bears scored 22 unanswered points behind a big-play defense that sent them to a 32-21 victory over Massachusetts and into the playoffs.
The win pushed 11th-ranked UMaine’s record to 8-2 overall and 6-1 in Colonial Athletic Association play. And though the NCAA selection committee won’t meet until Sunday, those numbers will put UMaine in the 20-team field for the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
The Bears last qualified for postseason play in 2008, when they lost a first-round game at Northern Iowa.
“I’m more excited for our seniors and the program and the kids in it than I’m probably letting on here,” Cosgrove said. “The challenge that we’ve gone through from last year to this — the growth, the development, all the things that have taken place internally — have got us, at least those of us in the building we’re in here, very excited about where we’re at and what’s in front of us.”
The Bears also are still in the hunt for the CAA championship and the automatic berth that goes with it. They can only claim both outright with a win at New Hampshire (7-3, 5-2 CAA) and if No. 8 Towson (9-1, 6-1 CAA) loses at Rhode Island.
UMaine could still gain a share of the title, but any other outcomes would give Towson the automatic berth.
The Bears will claim at least one of 10 at-large spots in the postseason field, which last season was expanded from 16 teams to 20. Towson will advance as will CAA newcomer and No. 10 Old Dominion (9-2, 6-2 CAA), coached by former UMaine quarterback and assistant coach Bobby Wilder, which has completed its regular season.
No. 12 New Hampshire (7-3, 5-2 CAA) will be fighting for its playoff life in Saturday’s renewal of the border rivalry with UMaine at Cowell Stadium in Durham, N.H. The Wildcats have made seven consecutive postseason appearances.
With so much on the line, Cosgrove expects there to be plenty of motivation for his team this week.
“How can you not be excited about playing for the [Brice-Cowell] Musket with CAA championship implications and postseason implications all wrapped up into one game,” Cosgrove said. “I don’t think we could have asked for anything better.”
UMaine has submitted bids to host either a first- or second-round playoff game, but likely won’t be afforded that luxury.
The Bears probably will avoid playing in the first round, which consists of only four games. And since only eight teams play at home in the second round, programs with higher rankings and better attendance figures would be likely to beat out UMaine.
Cosgrove wasn’t about to panic Saturday when UMass went ahead 21-10 early in the third quarter.
“I was concerned we’d missed opportunities, there’s no doubt,” he said. “You can’t measure a football game in this league at that point.
“We won the fourth quarter 13-0. That’s why we’re sitting here (as winners) today,” Cosgrove added.
UMaine welcomed back Pushaun Brown for Saturday’s UMass game and received an outstanding performance.
The senior tailback, who sat out the Towson game with a nagging thigh injury, returned to carry 26 times for 144 yards and a touchdown to help the Bears win.
“My mindset was on beating UMass. That’s what we did,” Brown said. “It wasn’t a pretty win, but we got it done.”
Brown peeled off a 35-yard run in the second quarter — one that he might have scored on if completely healthy — to spark a drive that culminated in his 12-yard scoring run.
“You can’t make up for the experience and the toughness and the know-how that you get from a senior back,” Cosgrove said. “Pushaun was really an important factor for us Saturday.”
Cosgrove said Brown’s blocking in pass protection was another key element against an aggressive UMass defense.
Brown, who is averaging 96.3 yards per game and 5.0 yards per carry, is expected to be healthy enough to play again in Saturday’s regular-season finale.