ORONO, Maine — The Colonial Athletic Association has a way of instilling a sense of humility during the course of a season.
The moment a team collectively begins to think it might be headed for a league title, things can unravel in the powerhouse Football Championship Subdivision conference.
The University of Maine is well aware of that dynamic and isn’t about to put its season on cruise control after taking over first place in the CAA standings.
“We know and respect our opponents in this league, top to bottom,” UMaine head coach Jack Cosgrove said Monday. “We’ve learned that trait over our history.”
The Black Bears have plenty of reason for optimism coming off Saturday’s 34-20 victory over William & Mary at Alfond Stadium.
It was the third consecutive win for UMaine, which has surged to a 6-1 start and a 3-0 conference record that puts it atop the CAA standings. The Bears also climbed to No. 11 in this week’s FCS poll conducted by The Sports Network.
UMaine was picked to finish eighth in the CAA preseason poll.
“We really have a tremendous level of respect for the schools in our league and I think our preparation for each one of our opponents is really the key to our success,” Cosgrove said.
The Bears have long since stopped celebrating Saturday’s homecoming win. That’s because another formidable opponent — the 18th-ranked Villanova Wildcats — awaits for a 1 p.m. game on Saturday in Pennsylvania.
And Villanova is bound to be fired up this week after dropping a 29-28 decision at New Hampshire in the closing seconds. UMaine hopes to meet the challenge of trying to stay in first place.
“To be in this position is something that we’re honored by,” Cosgrove said.
New Hampshire head coach Sean McDonnell doesn’t want his players to relish a victory longer than 24 hours.
“As good as the winning was on Saturday, you’ve got to erase that memory, go on to the next thing, because the next one is the most important one,” he said.
Cosgrove believes this year’s UMaine squad has embraced the importance of focusing on its short-term goals.
“All of us know in this league that each and every opportunity to play on Saturday has to bring the best out of you,” he said. “I feel like, especially with this group, we have their complete attention on that.”
UMaine has achieved a major turnaround from last season, when it started 2-5. Cosgrove said his team has matured. He pointed to the example set by Marcus Wasilewski. The senior quarterback on Monday was named the CAA Co-Offensive Player of the Week for his efforts against William & Mary.
“You don’t learn in this game until you’re in the action and you go through all the challenges that take place in the course of a game,” Cosgrove said.
He also pointed to the importance of having his coaching staff develop more cohesiveness after five assistant coaches had to be replaced prior to the 2012 season.
“We pretty much stayed intact (losing one coach last offseason) and I think there’s a real difference there with the personnel, staff and players, the working relationship there,” Cosgrove said.
The Black Bears appeared to benefit from having a bye on Oct. 12.
UMaine players were given a couple of extra days off after their Oct. 5 win against Delaware and turned in another productive overall performance in beating William & Mary.
“I thought we had a ton of life in us come Saturday,” Cosgrove said. “That was best reflected at the start of the game.”
The Bears built a 24-0 first-half lead.
Among the individual beneficiaries of the added time off was Rickey Stevens.
The senior tailback, who had been sidelined since suffering fractured ribs in the Sept. 21 game at Northwestern, gave UMaine’s running game a lift Saturday against The Tribe.
Stevens carried 24 times for a game-high 99 yards and scored a touchdown in his return.
“It felt good being back out there, helping my brothers out, trying to get wins and trying to execute on offense,” said Stevens, who did not have any physical issues after the game.
“Thank God for that. It’s definitely a great feeling, something I’ve been missing for the last three weeks,” he said of getting back on the field.
Stevens played even more than expected as sophomore tailback Nigel Jones (12 carries, 54 yards) was dealing with a sore ankle.
UMaine did play Saturday without senior defensive end Mike Cole, who continues to deal with a torn pectoral muscle.
Cole, who needs 2 1/2 quarterback sacks to tie UMaine’s career record of 27 1/2 owned by Mike Denino (1986-89), may be able to get back into the lineup at Villanova.