ORONO, Maine — Norfolk State football coach Pete Adrian isn’t tipping his hand.
He has three quarterbacks listed on his depth chart and the University of Maine Black Bears won’t know which one is playing until they take the field in a mutual season opener Saturday night at 6 at 30,000-seat William “Dick” Price Stadium in Norfolk, Va.
It will be the first ever meeting between the two schools.
Adrian is hoping the element of surprise will help his Spartans.
But Maine coach Jack Cosgrove and his team will be ready for whichever of the three redshirt sophomores starts. All three are transfers: Tyler Clark (Old Dominion), Malik Stokes (Bowling Green) and Omari Timmons (Albright).
“We’ve done our homework on the backgrounds of the quarterbacks. We’re going to learn early in the game who the quarterback is and what style of play he brings to the table,” said Cosgrove. “One of the kids [Clark] is 6-foot-5, so he probably isn’t as mobile as the other two. If he’s in there, they’ll probably pound the football and go play-action and have him setting up in the pocket.”
Cosgrove noted that they have a good running back returning (Brendon Riddick) but have added Boston College transfer Rolandan Finch, who rushed for 90 yards in 17 carries in BC’s 34-3 win over Maine last season and amassed 1,265 yards in 262 carries in his three seasons at BC.
“That says to me they’re going to try to run the football,” said Cosgrove.
“It doesn’t matter who the quarterback is, we’ve got to play our defense,” said Maine senior free safety Jamal Clay. “We’ll figure it out. Our main goal is to stop the run.”
Cosgrove said their defensive preparation focused on last year’s offense, not any quarterback.
Maine’s defense had a strong 2012 campaign and has several key players back like Clay and defensive end Mike Cole, who had 20 tackles and seven sacks before suffering a season-ending quadriceps tendor tear that required surgery.
He has 21 career sacks and is just 6½ sacks behind Mike Denino’s school record.
“I’m excited to get out there. They definitely have some athletes and we’ll see what they’re all about,” said Cole. “I feel real good right now. I’m ready to play football. You always want to get off to a good start. The first game is a big tone-setter.”
Under first-year defensive coordinator Paul Ferraro, the Black Bears were the Football Championship Subdivision’s 16th stingiest scoring defense a year ago, allowing 19.55 points per game.
“But we want to be better,” said Ferraro. “We set the bar high in terms of scoring defense and red zone [inside the 20-yard line] defense. But we need to play better on third down.”
Ferraro said one of the ways they hope to improve their third-down defense is by using more players.
“We had guys out there who were playing down after down after down, so when you got down to third down, which is the most important down in the series, at times our guys were a little bit gassed. By playing more guys on first and second down, it will allow us to play better on third down.”
Maine is coming off a 5-6 season while Norfolk State, which plays in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, was 4-7 a year ago.
“It’s going to be a real challenging game for us. We’re excited about it,” said Adrian. “They’ve made the playoffs two of the last five years. They have an excellent quarterback [Marcus Wasilewski] who had a real good year as a first-time starter last season. They have a pro tight end [Justin Perillo] who is 6-5, 250 pounds and who catches a lot of balls. Their secondary is back and their defensive line has experience. And they play in one of the best, if not the best conference in the FCS.”
Both coaches feel turnovers will be a key. The Spartans’ 34 turnovers a year ago were second-most in the country.
Cosgrove and his Bears respect Norfolk State.
“Their defense has been nationally ranked. They have some outstanding playmakers on defense. They can run, they can pressure you [into making mistakes]. And we have three new starters in our offensive line [center Bruce Johnson, right guard Daniel Carriker, left tackle Tyler Patterson]. It’s going to be a big challenge for us.” said Cosgrove.