Football games are won and lost in the trenches. The University of Maine hasn’t been winning enough of those battles along the line of scrimmage this spring.
The Black Bears are 2-2 after Saturday’s humbling 44-17 Colonial Athletic Association home loss to 16th-ranked Villanova. They have two games left on the abbreviated spring schedule and won’t be in line for a Football Championship Subdivision playoff spot.
UMaine’s defense is surrendering a CAA-worst 33.5 points per game and opponents are averaging 212.2 rushing yards per game and 5.3 yards per carry.
The loss of veteran defensive linemen Kayon Whitaker, Charles Mitchell and Alejandro Oregon, who combined for 139 tackles, 29.5 tackles for loss and 12 sacks, has been difficult to overcome. Whitaker was a first team All-CAA selection and Mitchell was a third-teamer.
Jamehl Wiley is the only returning starter.
Defensive linemen usually aren’t the leading tacklers, but instead dictate where tackles will be made. But if the offensive line gets a good push, opposing backs get to the second level of the defense for sizeable gains.
Villanova’s Justin Covington, the CAA’s top rusher in 2019 before getting hurt, averaged 9.1 yards per carry on Saturday.
UMaine’s defensive line will get better as it gains experience.
The rebuilt secondary has been a pleasant surprise considering its inexperience. Junior Richard Carr is the only returnee with substantial game time under his belt.
UMaine is allowing 149.2 passing yards per game to rank fourth in the conference, although some of that is a reflection of opponents’ success on the ground. Freshmen Austin Ambush and Shakur Smalls, junior Benito Speight, sophomore Donnell Henriquez and redshirt freshman Robby Riobe are gaining important playing time. Redshirt junior Fofie Bazzie was lost for the season due to injury.
University of Connecticut transfer Jordan Swann has experience and has stayed healthy and has been solid along with fellow cornerback Carr.
That unit could be a real strength in the fall with the return of veterans Shaquille St. Lot (injury) and Erick Robertson (opt-out).
Linebackers Deshawn Stevens, Adrian Otero and Myles Taylor have been the strength of the defense with 36, 25 and 18 tackles, respectively. Wiley ranks second on the team with 27 tackles, Riobe has 25 and end Khairi Manns has 23. Linebacker Ori Jean-Charles was playing well before sustaining an injury.
Sophomore quarterback Joe Fagnano and the offense have been inconsistent.
The line has plenty of experience, but has underperformed. All-America tackle Liam Dobson’s decision to transfer to Texas State was a significant loss.
Most of UMaine’s running backs and receivers are seeing their first significant game action.
Fagnano, a two-time CAA Offensive Player of the Week, was ineffective in the blowout losses to Delaware (37-0) and Villanova.
Against Villanova, Fagnano hurried his throws and appeared indecisive, throwing an interception that led to a touchdown. He also didn’t extend drives with his legs as he had in previous games.
Running back Xavier Scott, who had been injured, has shown promise. He made six catches for 102 yards on Saturday.
Fagnano’s favorite target, Andre Miller, who had 19 receptions for 309 yards in the first three games, only caught two balls and had trouble getting open.
Statistically, the Black Bears still have the CAA’s top passing offense (205.8 ypg).
The running game was non-existent to start the season but has gradually improved. Explosive freshman tailback Freddie Brock has emerged, averaging 5.7 yards per carry.
The Black Bears have posted 126.5 rushing yards per contest.
Discipline continues to be an issue, as UMaine is the third most penalized team in the league (77.5 ypg).
Second-year coach Nick Charlton said he won’t experiment with his lineup further to begin preparing for the fall season, but instead will focus on the short term.
“We went into this looking at it like it was its own season with a championship at the end of it and we’re going to continue to do that,” Charlton said.
“We’re going to attack every game the same way. There isn’t a lot of room for giving guys experience, they’re already getting it,” Charlton said.
The Black Bears have remained active throughout the season, navigating around COVID-19 issues that have sidelined other CAA teams. Charlton praised his players for their discipline complying with UMaine’s highly restrictive protocols.
Finishing with two wins would give UMaine momentum for the traditional fall season, when the Black Bears hope to be playing on new artificial turf on Morse Field.