ORONO, Maine — One thing stood between the University of Maine and a chance to achieve the best football season in program history — the New Hampshire Wildcats.
The Black Bears’ 2013 campaign ended Saturday on Morse Field at Alfond Stadium with a 41-27 Football Championship Subdivision second-round playoff loss to rival UNH.
Coach Jack Cosgrove’s team wound up 10-3, the second most victories in 121 years of UMaine football, on the way to claiming its first Colonial Athletic Association title. The Bears were ranked eighth in the last regular-season FCS coaches poll.
The Black Bears were spearheaded by a dedicated group of 18 seniors.
“I think we have a special group of seniors,” Cosgrove said. “Our message to them in [Saturday’s] postgame meeting was, let’s not forget what they gave us. That was more than just playing on the field. It was about the things you have to do and how you have to do them in order to win in the best FCS conference in the country.”
UMaine built its success around its ability to throw the ball and limit opponents’ effectiveness in the pass game. Senior quarterback Marcus Wasilewski was the unquestioned offensive leader as he set the UMaine career record for passing yards (3,238) and established single-season marks for completions (276) and completion percentage (.675).
The All-CAA first-team pick threw for 25 touchdowns and helped UMaine rank fourth in FCS completion percentage (.673 overall). He also rushed for 532 yards and three scores.
Seniors figured prominently on the offense. Wide receivers John Ebeling (60 receptions, 647 yards, 6 TDs), an All-CAA selection, and Derrick Johnson (60-608-2), along with all-league tight end Justin Perillo (39-490-4) were among the top targets. They were backed by junior wideouts Damarr Aultman (46-550-5) and Art Williams (24-344-3).
Senior Rickey Stevens (128-757-6) paced a steady ground attack along with promising sophomore Nigel Jones (131-596-8) and Wasilewski (156-532-3). They ran behind an offensive line that was led by senior All-CAA guard Jeff Gakos, all-league tackle Joe Hook and tackle Tyler Patterson of Rockland.
Sophomores Bruce Johnson (center) and Dan Carriker (guard) were the other two starters who helped the Bears average 29.8 points and 426 yards per contest.
UMaine set a school record with 269 first downs and converted 45 percent of third downs. However, its inability to run the ball effectively was among its shortcomings in back-to-back losses to New Hampshire.
The Bears, who beat Football Bowl Subdivision member Massachusetts, enjoyed unparalleled success in their kicking game. Sophomore Sean Decloux made a record 45 PATS in 48 tries.
The All-CAA first-team honoree also set UMaine records by booting 16 field goals in 21 attempts, including four kicks of 40 yards or more.
The Black Bears overcame some inexperience in key positions on defense behind a hard-charging group of seniors. In the middle, linebacker Troy Eastman (78 tackles, 2 interceptions) was the glue.
On the outside, All-CAA pick Kendall James (36 tackles, 2 INTs) was a shutdown cornerback, while safety Jamal Clay (47 tackles) patrolled the secondary and all-conference end Mike Cole (27 tackles, 8 sacks) and end Erwin Roach (35 tackles) headed the front-line charge.
UMaine also benefitted from the emergence of two linebackers, redshirt freshman Chris Mulumba (team-leading 118 tackles, 2 INTs), the CAA Defensive Rookie of the Year, and sophomore Cabrinni Goncalves (10 tackles, 6½ sacks). Sophomore All-CAA end Trevor Bates of Westbrook (54 tackles, 4 sacks) and redshirt freshman tackle Pat Ricard (59 tackles) were other top performers.
Junior corner Axel Ofori (49 tackles, 3 INTs), junior safeties Mike Mangiarelli (47 tackles, 2 INTs) and Khari Al-Mateen (35 tackles, INT), junior tackle Matt Wilson, junior LBs Arron Achey and Randy Samuels, sophomore CB Sherrod Baltimore and junior end Jon Lewis were also important contributors.
UMaine ranked seventh in FCS passing efficiency defense, 14th in passing defense (177 ypg) and 24th in total defense (342 ypg). The Bears surrendered 165 ypg on the run.
Junior Jeff Ondish averaged 40.4 yards per punt, landing 20 inside the opponents’ 20-yard line.
Looking ahead, UMaine has numerous holes to fill.
Most notably, the Bears must replace Wasilewski. Sophomore Dan Collins is considered the heir apparent at QB. UMaine also will have three new starters on the line for the second straight season.
Sacoy Malone and Isaiah Jones are among the complements to Nigel Jones at tailback, while Sean Reuss and Max Andrews of Holden return at tight end. Jordan Dunn and Justin Flores may assume more prominent roles at wideout.
On defense, despite losing two ends the Bears hope to build around a good nucleus among the front four. They also have plenty of experience at linebacker, safety and cornerback.
Having made three playoff appearances in the last six years, UMaine’s quest is to respond with another one in 2014.
“We need to establish a consistency in winning,” Cosgrove said.