IOWA CITY, Iowa — Depending on one’s point of view, Saturday’s season opener for the University of Maine football team can take on vastly different meanings.
For the University of Iowa, which plays in the powerful Big Ten Conference in the NCAA’s Bowl Championship Subdivision, UMaine is expected to be an opponent that will put up only modest resistance while allowing the Hawkeyes to play one of seven home games this season at Kinnick Stadium.
For the Black Bears of the Colonial Athletic Association and the Football Championship Subdivision, Saturday’s noon contest represents a chance to take on a big-time program and experience the thrill of playing in front of 70,000-plus roaring fans while making an attempt at an upset of Appalachian State proportions.
And, of course, the game represents a school-record $450,000 payday that will help UMaine athletics deal with ever-present budget constraints.
For 16th-year UMaine head coach Jack Cosgrove, the responsibility of taking part in such a game is somewhat daunting.
“You just want to make a great presentation,” Cosgrove said, explaining that includes more than playing a sound game on the field. “You’ve got a responsibility to a lot more than just yourself and the team. “It’s the University of Maine, it’s the state of Maine, in a Big Ten theatre.”
Not one for understating things, Cosgrove tried to put UMaine’s appearance at Iowa, in Kinnick Stadium and on The Big Ten Network, in perspective.
“This is a bigger stage than when Maine hockey plays in the national championship game,” he said. “Some people won’t agree with that, but football’s football in this country and that’s the way it is, especially when you go to the Midwest.”
Iowa, coached by former UMaine head coach Kirk Ferentz, is 32-7 (.821) at Kinnick Stadium since the start of the 2002 season and the Hawkeyes have played in front of 30 consecutive sellouts (70,585).
UMaine hopes to set the tone with defense in this contest. The Bears feature plenty of experience there, led by preseason All-America end Jovan Belcher, linebacker Andrew Downey and safety Lamir Whetstone.
They’ll need a strong effort up front, where there are three new starters, to contain an Iowa offense that returns seven starters from last year’s 6-6 squad. Seth Olsen and Rafael Eubanks head up a veteran line that protects quarterback Jake Christensen, who passed for 2,269 yards and 17 touchdowns last season.
The Hawkeyes, who committed only 13 turnovers last season, return seven of their top eight wide receivers, including Derrell Johnson-Koulianos (38 receptions, 482 yds.), who is a dangerous kickoff returner as well.
Two newcomers, sophomore tailback Paki O’Meara and soph fullback Jayme Murphy, spear-head the run game for a squad that is similar to the Connecticut team that gave UMaine fits last season.
“They’re going to try to run the football, pound it at us, and they’re going to play-action pass us,” Cosgrove said. “They’ve got a lefthanded quarterback who can throw on the run a little bit.”
UMaine’s offense remains a question mark heading into the opener. Senior Jhamal Fluellen hopes to build on his 1,052-yard rushing effort of 2007, but is running behind a line with only two returning starters in center Ryan Canary and tackle Chris Arnao.
Newcomers also man the H-back and tight end spots.
Quarterback Adam Farkes is improved after throwing for 836 yards and seven TDs a year ago, while Mike Brusko also will take some snaps when he’s not playing inside receiver. Landis Williams (38 rec., 481 yds.) tops the list of outside receiver threats.
Iowa has five starters back on defense, paced by tackles Matt Kroul and Mitch King, who combined for 132 tackles last fall. Linebacker A.J. Edds and safeties Harold Dalton and Brett Greenwood are proven commodities.
“Their defense is going to be very physical, not real complicated, but they’re going to play tough Iowa defense like they always do,” Cosgrove said.
The Bears also will initiate a new placekicker, regardless of whether freshman Brian Harvey or classmate Jordan Waxman gets the call.
With a motto of giving respect to earn respect firmly in place at Iowa, Ferentz and the Hawkeyes aren’t likely to take UMaine for granted — especially after Appalachian State’s shocking upset at Michigan to open the 2007 season.
“With the balance and the parity in college football, you need to be at your best and we’re certainly no exception to that,” Ferentz said.
“I think it will be similar to the trip Maine made out to Nebraska a couple years ago (25-7 Cornhuskers victory),” Ferentz said. “That’s what we’re prepared for mentally. We’re expecting a very tough contest and hopefully it will be a great environment.”