FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Early on, the University of Maine football team appeared to be in trouble against the University of Massachusetts on Saturday afternoon.
The Minutemen ripped off a 41-yard return of the opening kickoff, executed a 47-yard pass play on first down, then scored two plays later to take a 7-0 lead over the Black Bears.
UMaine settled down nicely, affording UMass only 204 yards and seven more points the rest of the way en route to the Black Bears’ 24-14 victory at Gillette Stadium.
Despite taking on a roster that included many bigger, faster players from the Football Bowl Subdivision’s Mid-American Conference, coach Jack Cosgrove’s team slowly built momentum and pulled away.
“It’s a great win,” said senior free safety Jamal Clay, who led UMaine with seven tackles and was named the College Sports Madness’ Colonial Athletic Association Defensive Player of the Week.
“It feels great to get a win versus an [FBS] team. We haven’t had one since Mississippi State [in 2004],” he added.
The defense has set a stingy tone in the Black Bears’ 2-0 start. The unit has allowed only 10 points and 244.5 yards per game, the latter of which leads the CAA.
UMaine, which has given up only 72 yards per game to the run, tops the league in pass defense, affording opponents only 172.5 yards per contest.
“I think our defense is going to be exceptional,” Cosgrove offered. “We’re just starting to get that going.”
The success has been accompanied by some consternation for UMaine’s 21-year coach.
“We’ve got some guys over there that’ll drive me crazy, but they play the game the right way,” Cosgrove said. “We’ll calm them down as much as we have to, because you can’t win this thing with choir boys.”
Even though the Bears have plenty of veterans on defense, particularly in the secondary, two young linebackers have been productive thus far. Sophomore Cabrinni Goncalves made seven tackles against UMass and ranks fourth in the CAA with 10 per game.
Redshirt freshman Christophe Mulumba posted six hits against the Minutemen and is averaging 6.5 tackles per game.
The defense proved resilient after the opening drive by UMass, which Cosgrove said was a result, in part, of the normal feeling out period early in the game. The Minutemen managed only 2.9 yards per rush and their two quarterbacks combined to complete only 20 of 42 passes (48 percent).
“The defense did a great job holding [them] down all game. They were stopping them; not a lot of points given up,” said UMaine quarterback Marcus Wasilewski.
The Bears not only bounced back after falling behind 1:23 into the contest, they also overcame some other issues that could have derailed their efforts.
UMaine responded on its first possession as Wasilewski (20-for-28 passing, 267 yards) completed three throws, including a 48-yarder to tight end Justin Perillo, to get the Bears to the UMass 5-yard line.
Wasilewski was intercepted, in the end zone, on the next play.
“They have good athletes, too, and I make mistakes, but the important thing is I have to try to bounce back from it,” he said. “Not only me, but the entire offense and the defense, as a team, have to back me up and they did. I trust them to do that all the time.”
The Bears also were tested when an apparent 25-yard scoring pass from Wasilewski to wide receiver Derrick Johnson (5 catches, 38 yards) was negated by a pass-interference penalty. UMaine regrouped and got a 26-yard field goal from sophomore Sean Decloux.
Two plays later, safety Khari Al-Mateen made an interception and returned it 37 yards to the UMass 14, only to fumble.
“Coach has been stressing all year, all the time, ball security, keeping it high and tight [against the chest],” Al-Mateen said. “Hopefully, I can get more opportunities to improve on that.”
UMaine finally put its defense, special teams and offense together to get the go-ahead touchdown in the second quarter.
Jeff Ondish lofted a well-placed punt that was fair-caught at the 5-yard line. The defense forced a quick punt of its own, then tailback Rickey Stevens broke off a 35-yard touchdown run on the Bears’ next offensive play to make it 10-7.
“It was a transitional moment in the game,” Cosgrove said.
However, Stevens fumbled the ball away on UMaine’s ensuing possession. It was the Bears’ last significant mistake of the day.
“We disappointed ourselves with the turnovers, there’s no getting away from that,” said Cosgrove, who liked the way his team handled the first-half adversity.
“I don’t think we got deflated,” he added. “I think we know, over the course of time, this game will give us our opportunities and we have to take advantage of them.”
UMaine dominated on both sides of the ball in the second half. The offense controlled the football for almost 22½ of the 30 minutes and outscored UMass 17-7.
“I think it’s a quality you have to have in this game, not getting beaten down by the turnovers or the things that happen in this game,” Cosgrove said.
UMaine is preparing for Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. home opener at Alfond Stadium against Bryant University of Smithfield, R.I.