ORONO, Maine — On paper, Saturday’s football game sending the University of Maine to 16th-ranked Northwestern, a 28-point favorite, had all the makings of a blowout.
On the field, the Black Bears of the Football Championship Subdivision gave the Big Ten Conference Wildcats a significant challenge before Northwestern took a 35-21 victory at Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill.
It was the first loss of the season for coach Jack Cosgrove’s team (3-1), but the effort produced further evidence this UMaine team has potential.
“For the most part, I know we competed real hard and played a full 60 minutes of football,” Cosgrove said during Monday’s Colonial Athletic Association coaches teleconference.
“[Northwestern] tore Syracuse apart,” he said of watching an earlier video. “If you were to be this guy [Cosgrove] watching that tape, the fear that you’d have knowing what they [Syracuse] have versus what we have was an intimidating tape to watch.”
The Black Bears might have made things even more interesting, had it not been for a handful of game-changing miscues. Northwestern’s opportunistic defense pushed its total to 10 interceptions in four games and returned two of them for touchdowns to gain some much-needed momentum.
The first took a fortuitous Northwestern bounce off the shoulder pads of UMaine wide receiver Derrick Johnson and into the hands of Damien Proby, who went 49 yards for a score.
“The worst thing that could have happened to us at the half is what happened,” Cosgrove said.
The other was the result of an ill-advised play by Bears quarterback Marcus Wasilewski, who was being wrapped up by a defender and threw a pass with his left (nonthrowing) hand. It floated it into the hands of Wildcats defensive end Dean Lowry, who ran 19 yards for a touchdown.
UMaine also had a couple of key breakdowns on special teams, having one field goal blocked and missing another on a poor kick — both in the first half.
“We made enough mistakes to put us behind enough for them to really be in control of the game and to play at the pace they wanted to play at,” said Cosgrove, who admitted he was pleasantly surprised how competitive his team was against Northwestern.
Cosgrove was pleased with the Black Bears’ defense, which allowed only 21 points and afforded the Wildcats 373 total yards, including only 122 through the air on 10-for-17 passing.
UMaine had difficulty stopping the run late in the game, when Northwestern’s big offensive line prevailed.
“Our defense played their fannies off for three quarters. I thought they were outstanding,” Cosgrove said.
Sophomore linebacker Cabrinni Goncalves continued his inspired play, racking up 11 tackles, including 4½ for negative yardage, with a forced fumble.
The Black Bears unveiled one of their most well-schemed offensive packages of the young season against the Wildcats. UMaine built what success it enjoyed (379 total yards, six-minute edge in time of possession) around its short passing attack.
Wasilewski was 25-for-40 passing, good for 237 yards and two scores with two interceptions. He utilized eight different receivers and took advantage of senior tight end Justin Perillo, who made eight catches for 81 yards and a touchdown.
Sophomore tailback Nigel Jones shouldered much of the ball-carrying load and netted 73 yards on 16 carries, including a 13-yard scoring run in the fourth quarter.
“It was pleasing how the offense finally, after a couple missed field goals and those turnovers, was able to put up 21 points and really play with some moxie,” Cosgrove said.
Cosgrove said the effort should provide UMaine with some momentum heading into Saturday’s CAA opener at Richmond.
“It has had tremendous benefits in the sense of getting this experience this past weekend and raising our level of play to another point that we hadn’t seen,” he said.
Despite the positives, UMaine returned to Orono on Saturday night even more banged up.
Wasilewski and senior tailback Rickey Stevens were among the players who suffered injuries against Northwestern.
Wasilewski injured his left shoulder after taking a helmet-to-helmet blow on a run in the third quarter. He went back into the game shortly thereafter and threw a touchdown pass, but aggravated the injury when he was sacked later in the game and did not return.
Stevens, who carried the ball only twice, reportedly suffered a fractured rib and is expected to be sidelined indefinitely.
“Rickey’s the worst of the two and I think that we may not see him for quite some time,” Cosgrove said. “That’s nothing we can lament about; it’s the nature of the game.”
Senior defensive end Mike Cole did not travel with the team and missed his second straight game with a chest injury. He tried to practice last week, but could not get through workouts on Wednesday or Thursday.
Among UMaine’s other injury casualties are senior tailbacks Zedric Joseph (broken leg) and Terrel Walker (knee), both of whom are out for the season, along with sophomore wide receiver Isaiah Jones (shoulder).
Sophomore fullback Carlton Charles returned to limited action at Northwestern after missing the Bryant game with an ankle injury.
With Wasilewski knocked out of Saturday’s game twice, UMaine received capable efforts from its two backup quarterbacks.
Senior John Ebeling, a former quarterback who has been a slot receiver for the Bears, played only four snaps behind center. However, he helped UMaine gain a first down before Wasilewski re-entered the game and threw a scoring pass to Derrick Johnson.
“He’s a very composed young man,” Cosgrove said. “He caught five or six balls for us outside [at wide receiver]. We brought him in and he ran the offense.”
It also marked the collegiate debut of Dan Collins. The redshirt freshman directed an eight-play, 51-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, completing four of six passes for 35 yards.
“Danny Collins, to get his first college experience against a Big Ten team and to drive our football team down the field for a touchdown, that’s a heck of a statement by the kid as a redshirt freshman.”