ORONO, Maine — Four or five years ago, the University at Albany football program might have been viewed by the University of Maine as a lesser opponent.
After losing to the Great Danes in two of the last four meetings, the Black Bears are well aware UAlbany is a formidable Football Championship Subdivision program.
UMaine renews its intensifying rivalry with a future Colonial Athletic Association opponent in its home opener Saturday evening.
Albany Great Danes (2-1) at Maine Black Bears (1-1), 6 p.m., Alfond Stadium, Orono: The mention of Albany conjures up various thoughts for UMaine coaches and players. The Black Bears, for good reason, are highly motivated to face the Great Danes.
The last time senior linebacker Donte Dennis played against UAlbany, it left an impression.
“I didn’t even know what to do. I wanted to pull my hair out,” Dennis said of UMaine’s 2010 home opener, which UAlbany won 3-0.
“That won’t ever leave my mind. We know it’s not going to be an easy game. It’s going to be a dogfight.”
The Bears won last year’s meeting 31-15, but the Great Danes are back and appear better. UAlbany, which plays in the Northeast Conference, took fifth-ranked Youngstown State to the wire in a 31-24 loss last week in Ohio.
Keep in mind, 40th-year coach Bob Ford and his staff are working with only 38 scholarship equivalencies. UMaine has 63, the FCS maximum.
“It’s awesome that they’re coming into our league [in 2013],” said UMaine head coach Jack Cosgrove. “They’re going to surprise a lot of teams because this is a great football program.”
UAlbany made its first trip to the FCS playoffs last season and finished 2011 ranked No. 23 in the nation.
UMaine enters the day ranked 22nd in the FCS Coaches Poll. The team that contains the other’s run game should have the upper hand.
The Bears rank 23rd in FCS rushing at 205.5 yards per game. A veteran offensive line is blocking for sophomore David Hood (83 yards per game) and junior Rickey Stevens (84 ypg).
UAlbany has allowed 154 rushing yards per contest and features a pressure-oriented defense that is led by linebackers Jon Morgan (23 tackles) and Chris Wilk (16) and safety Justinian Mason (14 tackles, 1 interception).
The Great Danes also look to contain junior quarterback Marcus Wasilewski (34-for-62, 363 yds., 1TD, 2 INTs), whose primary targets include senior wideout Maurice McDonald (11 catches, 87 yds.), junior WR Derrick Johnson (8-129-1) and junior tight end Justin Perillo (6-60).
UMaine has been solid against the run (134 ypg) with Dennis (20 tackles) heading the charge. Senior LB Troy Eastman (9) and junior safety Jamal Clay (8) are other mainstays.
UAlbany has exhibited tremendous run-pass balance. Versatile senior tailback Drew Smith (93 ypg, 3 TDs) is the primary ballcarrier, but also has eight receptions for 60 yards and a score.
Sophomore QB Will Fiacchi (56-for-81, 579 yds., 5 TDs, 1 INT) has demonstrated efficiency as a first-year starter.
“He’s a guy who to this point has really made the throws that they’re asking him to make,” Cosgrove said.
Wide receivers Cole King (14-260-4) and Ryan Kirschner (12-87) have been productive on the outside.
BEAR TRACKS … UMaine remains relatively healthy heading into the game, although senior backup safety Mike Mangiarelli is out with a left leg injury suffered at Bryant. The Bears welcome back junior tight end Doug Nash of Turner, who missed the first two games because of an undisclosed academic eligibility issue not related to academic performance.
Maine Maritime Academy Mariners (0-2) at Fitchburg State Falcons (1-2), noon, Fitchburg, Mass.: The Mariners are gunning for their first win coming off a slow start. MMA of Castine is trying to redevelop its triple option offense, which has struggled thus far.
The Mariners have managed only 10.5 points and 284.5 yards per outing and their pass game has been virtually nonexistent. MMA has split QB duties between Bradley Reed (62 ypg) and Michael Fahey (28 ypg), with fullback Billy Wetherbee of Veazie (71.5 ypg) leading the ground assault.
MMA has surrendered an average of 351 total yards, with 224.5 of those coming via the run. The Mariners rely on Joel Chadbourne (23 tackles, 1 INT) to set the defensive tone.
Today’s other games, 1 p.m.: Colby at Williams, Bowdoin at Middlebury, Bates at Trinity.