There is much more on the line this time around, but the University of Maine football team is taking the same business-as-usual approach.
Coach Jack Cosgrove’s Black Bears have an opportunity this season to go where no UMaine football team has gone before, and the quest begins with today’s NCAA Football Championship Subdivision second-round playoff game.
The venue is Boone, in the mountains of North Carolina, where No. 13 UMaine faces No. 8 Appalachian State in a 2 p.m. contest at Kidd Brewer Stadium.
It is the first postseason appearance for the Black Bears (8-3) since 2008, when they lost at Northern Iowa.
For Black Bear seniors, many of whom played in that game, Saturday’s game is a golden opportunity.
It also may represent their last chance to put on the helmet and shoulder pads.
“The excitement is more just knowing this could be your last game,” said senior defensive tackle Kevin Phanor. “You have to put it all on the table, because every week can be your last. It’s more of a nervous excitement, because there’s always that extra bit of denial where you try to put it off and think this can’t be it.”
There is plenty of motivation for the Bears. They’re facing an ASU team that is making its seventh consecutive postseason appearance.
The Mountaineers (8-3), the runners-up in the Southern Conference, also have the luxury of playing in front of the biggest home crowds in all of FCS football.
Appalachian State — pronounced Appa-LATCH-un — averaged 28,031 at home games this season, marking the fifth straight year they have led the nation in regular-season home attendance.
Cosgrove said the Bears have not been intimidated in such surroundings this season at Pittsburgh and James Madison.
“I thought we played one of our better games of the year [against JMU] there in front of that environment,” Cosgrove said. “There’s a real excitement on behalf of our players to go into venues of that nature. It’s a role we’ve embraced, an attitude we’ve embraced.”
When it comes down to it, it will be the Mountaineers the Black Bears must overcome on the field.
UMaine’s general plan of attack is likely to resemble the one it took to New Hampshire two weeks ago. The essence was to avoid big plays on defense and control the ball on offense while avoiding turnovers and capitalizing on scoring opportunities.
UMaine needs a better defensive effort than the one at UNH, where the Wildcats burned the Bears on several long plays.
The Bears must contend with an ASU offense that features tailback Travaris Cadet (145 carries, 655 yards, 5 touchdowns), elusive quarterback Jamal Jackson (135-for-217, 1,729 yds., 14 TDs, 6 interceptions) and 6-foot-5-inch receiver Brian Quick (64 receptions, 1,055 yds., 11 TDs).
Quick is on the watch list for the Walter Payton Award, which goes to the top offensive player in the FCS ranks.
“He’s a great player. We have to be aware of where he is at all times on the field,” said UMaine senior safety Trevor Coston (75 tackles, 6 interceptions).
The Bears also rely on the experience and talent of senior linebacker Vinson Givans (team-high 85 tackles), senior safety Jerron McMillian (83 tackles) and junior linebacker Troy Russell (66 tackles).
The Mountaineers have a stable of backs that also includes Jackson (79 carries, 308 yards, 7 TDs) and Steven Miller (74-377-3) and other receiving threats in Andrew Peacock (42-489-2), Tony Washington (31-339-2) and Cadet (30-285-1).
“They really present you with a lot of problems,” Cosgrove said of the Mountaineers, who average 30.2 points and 400.7 yards (231 passing).
UMaine ranks No. 21 nationally in pass efficiency defense and has given up 23.9 points and 348.3 yards per outing.
The Bears hope to establish the run and work off that with their play-action pass game. UMaine has been steady offensively, but hasn’t been able to run the ball with the kind of consistency it would like.
Senior tailback Pushaun Brown (193 carries, 944 yards, 10 TDs) is the workhorse and is closing in on a 1,000-yard season. He is complemented by redshirt freshman David Hood (65-238-4).
Senior quarterback Warren Smith (238-for-370, 2,643 yds., 17 TDs, 10 INTs) is looking to get back on track after a couple of subpar efforts down the stretch. He was intercepted three times at UNH and six times in the last three contests.
The Bears’ receiver corps features sophomore tight end Justin Perillo (45-446-3), senior slot receiver Derek Session (33-364-2) and redshirt freshmen Arthur Williams (28-386-2) and Damarr Aultman (28-350-3).
Appalachian State has a strong defense that has held opponents to 22.9 points and 343.1 yards per game.
The Mountaineers are led by linebackers Jeremy Kimbrough (93 tackles, 11.5 tackles for a loss) and Brandon Grier (84 tackles) and safety Troy Sanders (68 tackles).
UMaine also appeared in the postseason in 1987, 1989, 2001, 2002 and 2008 … ASU was won its last six playoff openers since 2002, when UMaine won 14-13 in Boone … The Mountaineers have won 61 of their last 65 home games, but are 2-2 in the last four postseason contests there … ASU place-kicker is 8-for-10 on field goals with a long of 44 yards while UMaine’s Brian Harvey is 7-for-12, including a 41-yarder.