ORONO, Maine — In July, Colonial Athletic Association coaches picked the University of Maine football team to finish ninth in the 10-team conference (Massachusetts was not counted in the league standings because of its pending move to the Bowl Championship Subdivision ranks).
Five months and 11 games later, the Black Bears are the last CAA team standing.
“I’m surprised at that because I know the quality of the teams in our league,” UMaine head coach Jack Cosgrove said during Monday’s weekly CAA coaches teleconference.
Eighth-ranked Towson (9-3), No. 10 Old Dominion (9-3), No. 11 New Hampshire (8-4) and No. 17 James Madison (7-5) all suffered second-round losses Saturday.
UMaine is among only eight Football Championship Subdivision teams still in action as the Bears head into the NCAA national quarterfinals.
Thirteenth-ranked UMaine left little doubt it is a serious championship contender Saturday, posting an emphatic 34-12 victory over No. 8 Appalachian State on the Mountaineers’ home field in Boone, N.C.
“This is a heck of a tournament that brings out the best in everybody,” Cosgrove said. “I think maybe our best really showed up on Saturday as opposed to Appalachian State’s best.”
The Bears (9-3) look to take an unprecedented step in program history Saturday when they play third-ranked and No. 3 playoff seed Georgia Southern at Paulson Stadium in Statesboro, Ga. Kickoff is set for 2 p.m.
It will be the third all-time postseason meeting between the two programs. The Eagles won in 1987 and 2002.
Cosgrove again pointed to the bye week and how it provided the Bears with the opportunity to rest, heal and prepare. The results were evident in UMaine’s execution and dominance against the No. 9 Mountaineers (8-4).
The Bears not only neutralized Appalachian State’s offensive threats, they did so with authority.
“Without a doubt, we feel like there’s a level of speed in that league [Southern Conference] that probably isn’t quite as matched here [in the CAA],” Cosgrove said, “but there’s a more physical style of play up here, especially with teams like Towson and UMass and Delaware with the big people they put up front.
“We felt like we matched up physically with Appy State in regard to our offensive and defensive lines, more so than we did with a lot of teams in our league,” he said.
UMaine held the Mountaineers to three yards rushing and bottled up a passing attack that featured a strong-armed quarterback and some elusive receivers.
The defensive line and linebackers got good pressure on quarterback Jamal Jackson, while the Bears’ secondary sent an early message with some hard hits and tight pass coverage against the likes of 6-foot-5 NFL prospect Brian Quick, ASU’s career leader with 202 receptions, 3,418 receiving yards and 31 touchdown receptions.
Two key cogs in that effort were the members of the “James Gang,” cornerbacks Kendall James (7 tackles, 1 interception) and Darlos James (5 tackles).
“I was real impressed when they tried to go deep with him [Quick], our corners ran with great technique and were in great body position,” Cosgrove said. “There was no real opportunity for that kid to get out at all.”
The Black Bears also demonstrated their resilience in the face of some adversity.
A noncall on an apparent pass interference in the end zone helped stall a first-quarter drive that ended with a field-goal attempt. Brian Harvey’s 20-yard kick was blocked.
Appalachian State then responded by scoring and threatened to tie the game and regain the momentum. Doug Alston blocked the PAT to keep UMaine on top and the Bears eventually regained command with their well-rounded play.
“We just kept playing,” Cosgrove said. “Our defense went out and kept giving us opportunities with the ball.”
The offense complemented the defense with a tough run approach and a nice blend of play-action passes.
The offensive line, which features tackles Josh Spearing of Limington and Steve Shea of Corinna, guards Jeff Gakos and Chris Holey, center Chris Williamson and tight end Justin Perillo, set the tone.
Senior tailback Pushuan Brown (24 carries, 111 yards, TD) provided a physical presence and redshirt freshman tailback David Hood (4 carries, 88 yards, TD) added that and some speed to the mix.
Hood ripped off a 54-yard scoring run and Brown had a 31-yard TD jaunt.
“They both broke some tackles and ran extremely hard,” Cosgrove said. “The offensive line did a great job of creating that seam early and then we broke some tackles in the secondary.”
The ability to run the ball consistently was instrumental in opening up the pass game, where senior quarterback Warren Smith (17-for-26, 250 yards, 3 TDs, 1 interception) and the receivers excelled.
Smith and redshirt freshman wide receiver Damarr Aultman hooked up on first-half TD passes of 44 and 35 yards and Smith found John Ebeling in the back of the end zone on a 21-yard TD toss.
“It was really a great effort on the offense that was set up by a more profoundly impactful effort by our defense going up against an explosive offense,” Cosgrove said.