ORONO, Maine — Three weeks into the 2013 season, the University of Maine football team joins Towson as one of only two unbeaten teams in the Colonial Athletic Association.
The Black Bears registered their third win of the season Saturday afternoon, overcoming a testy Bryant University team 35-22 at Alfond Stadium.
In doing so, this became the first Jack Cosgrove-coached team to start a season 3-0 since 2002, when UMaine shared the Atlantic 10 title and advanced to the NCAA quarterfinals.
“I think [Bryant], in a lot of ways, [was] the best team we played so far, without a doubt,” Cosgrove said Saturday.
UMaine is ranked No. 25 in this week’s Football Championship Subdivision coaches poll and is receiving votes in The Sports Network poll.
During a Monday afternoon interview on “Downtown” with Rich Kimball, Cosgrove said his team may have been a bit overconfident and not been as focused on details against the Bulldogs.
However, there was a definite level of respect for the Bryant team that severely tested UMaine, despite having only about one-third of the Black Bears’ 63 scholarship equivalencies.
“It doesn’t feel at all like last week, for sure, but it’s a win,” Cosgrove said Saturday, referring to UMaine’s victory over FBS member Massachusetts.
Though pleased with the early success, the Black Bears have plenty of reasons to remain humble and focused as they head back to the practice field.
UMaine’s next opponent has the strong possibility of representing the best team a Black Bears squad has ever encountered on the football field. Northwestern is considered a legitimate threat to win the Big Ten title this season.
The Wildcats also are 3-0 and ranked as high as No. 16 at the Football Bowl Subdivision level — a notch above the Bears’ home in the Football Championship Subdivision.
“This is the biggest challenge we’ve ever faced, I think, in all of the FBS games we’ve played,” Cosgrove said. “We’ve never played a team ranked this high.”
Northwestern is No. 16 in the coaches’ poll and No. 18 in The Associated Press poll this week.
Cosgrove said those numbers are daunting, especially because in 2008, UMaine traveled to Iowa and suffered a 46-3 defeat at the hands of coach Kirk Ferentz’s Hawkeyes.
UMaine will receive a guarantee of more than $400,000 for playing in Evanston, Ill., a Chicago suburb, on Saturday afternoon. Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m.
“It’s exciting to be able to do this,” Cosgrove said of facing a high-powered FBS opponent. “We’re going to commit ourselves to doing it as well as possible in regard to preparation and the mindset to go out and win.”
The rough-and-tumble nature of football means injuries are part of the experience, and UMaine has endured its share already.
The Bears went into Saturday’s game without starting senior defensive end Mike Cole because of a chest injury, while starting junior fullback Carlton Charles of Windham was sidelined by a foot/ankle issue.
UMaine also has seen its tailbacks corps reduced to two veterans. Senior Zedric Joseph, who had emerged as a productive runner and receiver, appears to have been lost for the season. He made his first start for the Bears on Saturday.
Joseph was expected to undergo a second round of X-rays on Monday and Cosgrove confirmed later in the day that 5-foot-9, 195-pounder from Orchard Park, N.Y., is out for the rest of the season.
The transfer from Erie Community College, who appeared in two games last year, reportedly suffered a broken leg during the first quarter of the Bryant game.
With the previous loss of senior tailback Terrel Walker to a knee injury, the Bears will rely on senior Rickey Stevens and sophomore Nigel Jones to carry the load as the team tries to reestablish its depth in the backfield.
UMaine also appears to have concerns at tight end, where Justin Perillo is dealing with a shoulder problem. The senior standout was limited in practice last week and played against Bryant, but he clearly re-aggravated the injury twice during the game.
Perillo, who also serves as the Bears’ snapper for extra points and field goals, has six catches with a touchdown this season and is a key component in UMaine’s run-blocking schemes.
Bryant University coach Marty Fine went out of his way Saturday night to complement Cosgrove for his efforts as UMaine’s head coach.
“To do what he’s done here, so far removed from where he has to get the majority of his players, I assume, it’s a remarkable thing that he’s done, from a coach’s perspective,” said Fine, who appears to have his program moving upward in its third FCS season.
“I’ve been a lot of places a lot of years,” Fine continued. “It’s viewed that way by our entire profession.”