ORONO, Maine — In Division I football, there are no exhibition games or scrimmages against outside opponents.
The University of Maine will find out much more about its capabilities during Saturday’s season-opening game against Norfolk State.
Kickoff is set for 6 p.m. at Alfond Stadium, where it will be “John Huard Day.” The former Black Bear Little All-American has been selected for the National Football Foundation and College Football Hall of Fame.
Coach Jack Cosgrove’s squad is much less experienced than the 2013 team that posted a 10-3 record, won the Colonial Athletic Association title and earned a spot in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
UMaine is ranked No. 20 in the FCS coaches’ poll and No. 25 in The Sports Network sampling. Cosgrove expects a defensive struggle, given that both teams return numerous veterans on that side of the ball.
The Black Bears, which won last year’s meeting 23-6 in Virginia, go into the contest behind a new quarterback in redshirt sophomore Dan Collins. They also have three new starters on the offensive line.
UMaine’s top threats include junior tailback Nigel Jones (131 carries, 596 yards, 8 touchdowns in 2013) and senior wide receiver Damarr Aultman (46 catches, 550 yards, 5 TDs), who has overcome a hamstring ailment.
“I’m not so sure right now — with the guys that we’re playing and the opponent that we’re playing against — that we can make a statement that we’re going to be able to throw the ball or be able to run the ball,” Cosgrove said. “It’s the first start for a lot of our guys on offense.”
Norfolk State of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (3-9 last season) lines up a defense that ranked 13th in the FCS in 2013, giving up only 328 yards per game while causing 33 turnovers, good for fifth in the nation.
The contingent includes nine returning starters, led by senior linebackers Marcell Coke (108 tackles) and Lynden Trail (94 tackles, 5 forced fumbles), a 6-foot-7, 260-pounder, and junior LB Deon King (84 tackles, 9.5 sacks).
“They’re extremely talented on the defensive side of the ball,” Cosgrove said. “They have some special players, and it’s scary to go up against a team with that level of experience.”
UMaine relies on a defense that features two difference-makers in junior linebacker Christophe Mulumba Tshimanga (118 tackles) and junior Cabrinni Goncalves (101 tackles, 6.5 sacks). Other standouts include junior end Trevor Bates of Westbrook (54 tackles) and senior safety Khari Al-Mateen (35 tackles).
Senior cornerback Axel Ofori is doubtful with a foot/ankle injury.
The Bears ranked seventh in the FCS a year ago, with a 105.33 passing efficiency defense, and were No. 22 in total defense (342.2 ypg).
The Spartans offense graduated a 1,113-yard rusher in Rolandan Finch and look to Brendon Riddick (240 yards, 1 TD) to step up. Norfolk State will be directed by junior QB Malik Stokes (36-for-95 passing, 465 yards, 2 TDs, 4 interceptions) in the absence of injured junior Tyler Clark.
The Spartans also lost four of their top five receivers but return wideout Keith Johnson (10-147-1).