ORONO, Maine — If the University of Maine had played one of its Colonial Athletic Association opponents on Saturday, it might have been a long, disappointing opening night.
Instead, the revamped Black Bears overcame considerable inexperience at numerous positions by riding a stalwart defensive effort to a 10-6 victory over Norfolk State of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.
A total of 11 freshmen or second-year players saw their first game action for UMaine and several others filled starting roles for the first time.
“There’s room for improvement,” said sophomore quarterback Dan Collins, who made his first collegiate start. “We’ve got this bye week coming up. We’re going to improve a lot seeing film, correcting our errors.”
Coach Jack Cosgrove’s team returns to practice this week with an open date on the schedule, which will give UMaine two weeks to prepare for its Sept. 13 game at Bryant University in Smithfield, Rhode Island.
The defense shouldered much of the load against Norfolk State.
Despite missing starting linebacker Cabrinni Goncalves (one-game suspension) and injured cornerback Axel Ofori, and after losing starting cornerback Sherrod Baltimore and end Mike Kozlakowski to injuries during the contest, the defense stood tall.
UMaine allowed only 100 total yards, 51 of which came during the first quarter.
“We had to fight real hard. Our defense really had to stand up at the end and make some plays,” Cosgrove said of the unit’s stand on the Spartans’ last possession. “They really bailed us out with some huge plays.”
Sophomore linebacker Christophe Mulumba Tshimanga was a force, racking up a game-leading 14 tackles. The contest also featured the emergence of some first-time starters and contributors.
Senior linebacker Randy Samuels posted eight tackles, while linebacker Austin Brown (7), cornerback Najee Goode (4), linebacker Zach Hume (3) and corner Tayvon Hall — all redshirt freshmen — had solid debuts along with redshirt sophomore safety Davonte Burke (6).
“I’m scared to death [that] we’ve got two redshirt freshmen out there at the cornerback position and they really came through for us,” Cosgrove said.
UMaine’s front line was outstanding, with junior Trevor Bates of Westbrook (5 tackles, interception), senior Matt Wilson (5) and sophomores Darius Greene (4 tackles, sack) and Pat Ricard (3 tackles, sack) and Kozlakowski (3 tackles, sack) putting up a wall.
The offense was unspectacular, but did enough to help UMaine pull out a win.
Collins, operating behind a rebuilt line that included three new starters, completed eight of 20 passes for 92 yards and a touchdown. He was sacked three times, fumbled once on a mishandled snap and ran the ball 14 times for 25 yards.
“It’s my first start and I was obviously a little bit shaky in the first quarter,” admitted Collins.
Cosgrove was more concerned about the outcome.
“Danny won his first college football game [Saturday night] and that’s what the goal is,” he offered.
“We had some wide-eyed guys out there and Danny I saw grow before my eyes in that regard,” Cosgrove said.
The Black Bears were admittedly conservative in their play-calling later in the game, especially after extending the lead to 10-6 midway through the third quarter.
Cosgrove said the offense had its hands full against a veteran Norfolk State defense.
“We were searching. We were getting our butts kicked at a couple spots up front,” he said of a unit that included first-time starters in tackles Ben Wezel and Isaiah Brooks, guard Chase Hoyt and tight end Jeremy Salmon, a converted fullback.
However, Cosgrove cautioned that the line was only part of the problem amid the offense’s inconsistent play. The Bears’ experience and depth at wide receiver were hampered by injuries to Art Williams, who also was serving a one-game suspension for a violation of the student-athlete code of conduct, and Justin Flores.
Saturday also was characterized by a subpar effort from UMaine’s punt team, an area that is expected to be a strength this season.
Senior Jeff Ondish averaged 39.6 yards per kick, but the Bears were hampered by poor field position after punts of 26 and 36 yards in the first quarter, then attempts that covered only 31 and 27 yards in the fourth quarter.
All were into the wind.
“We were backed up the whole first quarter and most of the fourth quarter, terrible field position,” Cosgrove said. “We didn’t punt the ball very well at all [Saturday] and we needed that in this game.”
Getting over the hump
Saturday’s victory represented a coaching benchmark of sorts for Cosgrove.
The win by UMaine pushed his career record in 21-plus seasons as a head coach to 122-121, putting him over the .500 mark. He would have reached the standard earlier, but the football program was forced by the NCAA to vacate its three victories in 1993 because of compliance-related violations.
The Black Bears are 25-13 under Cosgrove since the start of the 2011 campaign.