Nick Charlton is an optimist.
Even though his team is a disappointing 2-3 overall (0-2 in the Colonial Athletic Association), the University of Maine’s first-year head football coach feels the Black Bears are still capable of earning one of 24 FCS playoff berths.
But the margin for error for his defending CAA champion and Football Championship Subdivision semifinalists is now razor thin.
UMaine will probably have to win six of its final seven games to remain in the postseason conversation. One of the games is against Football Bowl Subdivision team Liberty University.
It is difficult to envision a 6-1 finish because the Black Bears have a variety of issues to get straightened out.
It’s one thing to address one major deficiency. You can try new personnel or a new scheme.
But it’s totally different when there a multitude of problems.
The defense, with eight returning starters, was supposed to be a strength. UMaine had the best run defense among 124 FCS schools last year, surrendering just 79.2 yards per game. So far this season, they are allowing 198 ypg and 4.9 yards per carry.
Even if you dismiss the 26-18 loss to FBS option team Georgia Southern, which gouged UMaine for 395 rushing yards, the Black Bears have still given up an average of 149 rushing yards in its other four contests.
After reviewing tape of his team’s 33-17 loss to Villanova on Saturday, Charlton said the Wildcats gained more than 200 yards courtesy of missed tackles.
UMaine has not been able to pressure the quarterback as it did last season, but has faced Towson’s Tom Flacco, the CAA Offensive Player of the Year, and Villanova’s Daniel Smith. Both are elusive run-pass threats.
The Black Bears, which posted 3.4 sacks per game last season, are averaging 1.8 in 2019. Eight of the nine sacks this season came against an 0-5 Colgate team that is without its starting QB.
The Black Bears were plus-five in turnover margin (five more takeaways than turnovers) last season, but are minus-nine this season. UMaine has yet to register an interception.
The defense has missed preseason All-America linebacker Deshawn Stevens (120 tackles in 2018). He also made 17 tackles for loss, with nine sacks.
Stevens suffered a season-ending Achilles tendon injury in the season-opening 42-14 win over Sacred Heart. He also is the emotional leader of the defense, the one player UMaine could ill afford to lose.
His loss has been compounded by a shoulder injury to linebacker Jaron Grayer, who has missed two games.
The offense has also had its struggles.
Junior quarterback Chris Ferguson has thrown eight interceptions, including six in league losses to Towson and Villanova. Four were turned into touchdowns.
The inability to establish a consistent running game has forced Ferguson to average 39 passes a game. That has made UMaine (98.2-yard rushing average) one-dimensional.
UMaine ran efficiently last season (134.4 ypg), but the loss of running back Ramon Jefferson (1,037 yards) has hurt. He was suspended for an off-field incident and decided to transfer.
Hard-running Joe Fitzpatrick (208 yards, 5.1 ypc) and shifty Buffalo transfer Emmanuel Reed (203 yds., 4.2 ypc) have not been big-play threats. A 22-yard run by Fitzpatrick is the longest of the season.
Northern Illinois transfer Jordan Rowell, who recently returned to practice after suffering a knee injury in the first scrimmage, could give the running game a boost.
The offensive line has not been opening holes on a consistent basis to create a dependable running game, but it has done an admirable job protecting Ferguson. The pocket passer, with limited running ability, has been sacked only five times.
Feguson is third in FCS passing yards (1,622) and sixth in passing yards per game (324.4), but his interceptions have been costly.
Wide receiver and kickoff returner Earnest Edwards has been a bright spot. His 173.2 all-purpose yards per game ranks fourth in the FCS, and his kickoff return average (34.9) is third best. He has returned two kickoffs for TDs.
Edwards’ 473 receiving yards and fellow senior Jaquan Blair’s 404 are eighth and 21st in the FCS. Blair made a career-high 12 catches against Villanova.
“He had 12 catches on 12 targets. I’ve never heard of anything like that before,” Charlton said.
UMaine also has been adjusting to several changes in the coaching staff. Former head coach Joe Harasymiak left to become a defensive backs assistant at Minnesota, and defensive coordinator Corey Hetherman left for a similar position at James Madison.
There is always an adjustment period and continuity is tested when you have a new head coach and other changes in responsibilities.
The Black Bears could win six of their final seven games. The seven teams on their remaining schedule have a combined record of 13-19. Liberty and Albany are both 3-2, while the other road games include Elon and New Hampshire.
Working in UMaine’s favor is the CAA’s reputation as the best FCS conference in the country. It sent a record six teams to the playoffs in 2018.
But none of them had more than four losses entering the playoffs.
If UMaine finishes 7-5, it is highly unlikely to make the playoffs especially considering its losses to Towson and Villanova and the lack of other high-caliber FCS opponents.
“We feel we should be a playoff team,” Charlton said, “but we’ve got to take care of business. Everything is still in front of us.”