ORONO, Maine — With four weeks remaining in the regular season, the University of Maine is showing signs that this year’s football team could be special.
Coach Jack Cosgrove’s 10th-ranked Black Bears (7-1, 4-0 CAA) picked up their fourth straight win Saturday, edging No. 17 Villanova 37-35 on the road.
UMaine is no more than two wins away from guaranteeing itself a spot in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. It’s a discussion Cosgrove and his team aren’t having quite yet.
“We have thoughts on Stony Brook, that’s about it,” he said Monday when asked about UMaine’s postseason prospects.
“That’s all we worry about,” he said of Saturday’s opponent at Alfond Stadium.
“When you’re on the down side looking up at the opponents in this league, you learn how to respect them,” he added.
On Saturday, even though UMaine had difficulty containing dynamic Wildcats quarterback John Robertson, the offense continued its balanced, productive play.
One of the key dynamics of this unit has been its ability to convert in third-down situations. UMaine ranks No. 1 in the FCS this season with 55 percent success (64-for-116) on third down.
“We put an emphasis on it because we were so bad at it,” Cosgrove said matter-of-factly on Monday.
“It wasn’t last week or the week before, it’s been ongoing the spring, the summer, preseason,” he added. “It’s a big play in the game and we’ve spent a ton of time on it.”
The Black Bears made good on 13 of 19 third-down plays (68 percent). They piled up 24 first downs on their way to 536 total yards, including 337 via the pass.
On average, UMaine needed five yards on third down against Villanova. Eight times, it was three or fewer yards.
“I think the most obvious thing is that we were a more difficult team to defend [on] third-and-3, third-and-2,” Cosgrove said.
“We were very good at moving the chains Saturday,” he added, pointing out those situations also give the Bears more flexibility in play-calling.
Cosgrove said UMaine’s ability to pick up a good chunk of yardage on first down — it averaged four yards — was a key factor in having more manageable third-down scenarios.
The Bears’ 55-percent success on third down is 13 percent better than any season dating back to 2003. They also are No. 1 in CAA play, converting 63 percent (35-for-56).
A critical byproduct of those efforts has been point production. UMaine is averaging 33.0 points per game, its highest total going back at least 10 years. During that time, the 2011 playoff team was the closest at 29.3 ppg.
The Bears also have demonstrated outstanding balance, throwing the ball 57 percent of the time and running it 43 percent. That ratio is only slightly behind last season’s 56-44 pass-run blend as the most balanced in more than a decade.
Cosgrove said UMaine has not altered its offensive scheme or play calls, which have been crafted by offensive coordinator Kevin Bourgoin. Instead, the players have simply been more productive.
“We’re calling a lot of the same stuff that we’ve always worked on,” he said.
UMaine’s ability to move the ball consistently also has helped it control the clock. The Bears’ average time of possession is a CAA-best 33 minutes, 21 seconds.
That places them eighth in the country and is the second-highest time of possession for a UMaine team since 2003.
Cosgrove continues to heap praise on senior quarterback Marcus Wasilewski for his handling of the offensive unit.
Wasilewski was 28-for-34 passing with 337 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions at Villanova. He also ran for a team-high 86 yards and a TD on 20 carries.
“He was incredibly efficient,” Cosgrove said. “The runs he gave us were very productive and at key points of the game.”
The offense continues to keep defenses guessing, in part because Wasilewski has emerged as an effective runner in addition to his passing skills.
“He needs to play that way,” Cosgrove said.
“I think a couple of pops and some physicalness in a football kid brings out the Pennsylvania kid in him better. It really allows our offense to operate [more effectively].”
The kick is good
Place-kicker Sean Decloux played a key role in UMaine’s win at Villanova.
The sophomore from Ottawa, Ontario, booted three field goals in a game for the second time in his career. He kicked a 39-yarder in the first quarter, then converted attempts of 42 and 40 yards in the second quarter.
The 42-yarder was the longest of his career.
“That was a windy day down there, swirling winds,” Cosgrove said. “None of those field goals were easy. They were hash-related [on a hashmark], wind-directed.
“One of those field goals provided our margin of victory,” he added.