Thursday, December 12, 2013
The most surprising aspect of the University of Maine's 5-1 start to the football season may be the success of the Black Bear running game despite huge losses to graduation and injury.
Gone from the offensive line are two all-conference players -- tackle Josh Spearin and guard Chris Howley -- and center Garret Williamson.
"All three were three-and-a-half year starters for us," said head coach Jack Cosgrove, who in the past month also saw tailbacks Terrel Walker, Zedric Joseph and Rickey Stevens lost to injury, Walker and Joseph for the season.
Even so, the Black Bears -- whose national poll rankings jumped from 23 to 14 (The Sports Network) and 17 (coaches) -- managed to rack up 337 yards on the ground in Saturday's impressive 62-28 victory over visiting Delaware.
Sophomore Nigel Jones led the way with 107 yards on 19 carries. In addition, John Ebeling (86 on nine), Isaiah Jones (82 on six) and Sacoy Malone (44 on eight) all gained significant yardage behind Maine's offensive line.
"It speaks volumes to their work as a group," Cosgrove said of tackles Tyler Patterson and Joe Hook, guards Jeff Gakos and Daniel Carriker, center Bruce Johnson and tight end Justin Perillo. "They've taken great direction, great coaching and they come to work. It's a typical O-line group with a lunch-pail mentality. And by far the biggest surprise of the season is their abilities and how well they're doing, especially as we've run the football."
On a second-quarter screen pass to Jones that resulted in a 33-yard touchdown and a 34-8 Maine advantage, Johnson, the center, nearly beat the speedy Jones to the end zone, throwing a final block inside the 5.
For Jones and Malone, Saturday's carries were their first of the season.
"They were very productive," said Cosgrove, speaking in his weekly teleconference call. "You know, they're not your big, physical running backs. Their biggest asset is their speed and we were able to crease a couple of things with them in the game, which was nice to see."
Ebeling's carries came after the quarterback-turned-slot-receiver moved behind center, either switching positions with starting QB Marcus Wasilewski or with Wasilewski out of the game in the fourth quarter.
"It was a good confidence builder for our offensive line and our running game," Cosgrove said, "because we were concerned, obviously, with losing Walker, Joseph and Stevens, bang-bang-bang. We had some worries about doing the things we needed to do to be able to run the football."
The victory over Delaware leaves the Black Bears at 2-0 in the Colonial Athletic Association, whose preseason poll pegged them at eighth. The only other teams unbeaten in CAA play are Towson (6-0, 2-0) and Villanova (3-2, 2-0). They face each other this weekend in Maryland while Maine enjoys a bye week.
The Black Bears return to action Oct. 19 in Orono against William & Mary (3-2, 1-1).
Cosgrove said practice would continue for the Black Bears, but players will have the weekend off. Coaches can turn their attention to recruiting as well as preparing for William & Mary, which hosts the University of Pennsylvania on Saturday.
"We'll do all the kinds of things we normally do, but we'll back off a little bit in terms of the volume," Cosgrove said. "I think that's something everybody does during the course of a bye week."
Stevens, who suffered fractured ribs during the 35-21 loss to Northwestern (which led No. 4 Ohio State in the fourth quarter Saturday before falling 40-30), may return sooner than expected.
"He's ahead of schedule," Cosgrove said. "There's a possibility for William & Mary. We were told six weeks (to heal) and now it's down to possibly five."
Stevens will see a doctor today for an update on his condition.
The rest of Maine's schedule after hosting William & Mary: at Villanova, host Stony Brook (2-3), at Albany (1-5), host Rhode Island (2-4), at New Hampshire (1-3).