ORONO, Maine — The University of Maine football team had limited options in regard to its running game on Saturday.
Going into their Colonial Athletic Association opener against No. 20 Richmond, the Black Bears had lost four tailbacks, including three of their top four, to injuries this season.
Then, throw in the fact UMaine’s leading rusher — senior quarterback Marcus Wasilewski — was dealing with an injury to his left shoulder that kept him out of the ball-carrying mix, and the Bears were severely limited.
That didn’t keep them from doing damage via the run.
Sophomore tailback Nigel Jones enjoyed a productive game, churning out 115 yards on 23 carries, including two big touchdowns, to help UMaine pull out a 28-21 victory and improve to 4-1.
“Nigel played very well, make no mistake about it,” UMaine coach Jack Cosgrove said on Monday’s CAA teleconference.
“You can see Nigel’s a good running back. He’ll take a hit, he’ll keep going,” he added.
Jones shouldered almost the entire load Saturday as Wasilewski — so as not to be placed in harm’s way with UMaine’s usual dose of quarterback runs — had only three carries for six yards, and John Ebeling ran the ball once for four yards.
“We lost a lot of running backs, a lot of veteran guys that I look up to that showed me how to do it,” Jones said after Saturday’s win.
Jones, a 5-foot-9, 198-pound product of Pleasantville, N.J., was quick to credit his teammates for any success he enjoyed.
“It wasn’t me, it was my line,” Jones said. “They opened up great holes, and I just trusted my technique and ran the ball.”
The ground yards came hard during the first half, but the Bears were able to find a way to succeed in the second half.
“We made a couple of halftime decisions, adjustments and were able to run the football much more productively in the second half,” Cosgrove said.
Jones scored the Bears’ first touchdown on a 6-yard pass from Wasilewski in the first quarter. Later, he found running room.
Despite four second-half carries for no gain, Jones sped down the left side for an 18-yard touchdown and the go-ahead TD in the third quarter. He also broke a 46-yarder early in the fourth quarter.
“He made a tremendous cut on his long touchdown run, just a very impressive one-on-one cut with a linebacker, and he just beat him and then took off and scored, and it was a huge play for us,” Cosgrove said.
One glaring area of concern for the UMaine football team has been its propensity for momentum-killing turnovers.
Wasilewski threw two interceptions against Richmond, both of them on throws to the end zone.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been a part of a game that’s had three end-zone interceptions in a game that we had two of them go against us,” Cosgrove said.
A week earlier at Northwestern, Wasilewski was picked off twice and both were returned for touchdowns — although one of the passes deflected off the intended receiver’s shoulder pads and into the hands of a defender.
Wasilewski had an otherwise outstanding performance against the Spiders. He completed 26 of 34 passes for 293 yards with two touchdowns, utilizing six different receivers.
“I think he is on track. Unfortunately, he’s just making some catastrophic decisions,” Cosgrove said.
“It’s hard for us to find Saturday anything else he did wrong, other than those two throws. He really played a solid football game.”
UMaine was happy Saturday to welcome back Mike Cole, albeit in a more reduced role.
The senior defensive end returned to game action after missing two games with a pectoral muscle injury. Cole made his presence felt, making four tackles, including a quarterback sack among three hits for a loss of yardage.
Cole, who appeared to experience some discomfort as a result of the injury, also forced a fumble.
“He didn’t play a ton of reps, he split the game with Trevor Bates, but we were sure glad to have him in there on pass situations,” said Cosgrove, who explained Cole’s return helped the Bears pass defense.
“We had three sacks, we had six pressures that we felt the quarterback was throwing off his heels, and we got three interceptions,” he added. “That overall rush and his presence certainly contributed to some of the big plays we made on defense.”
UMaine, which has played four of its first five games on the road, including two against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents, returns to Alfond Stadium for Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. CAA game against Delaware.