RICHMOND, Va. — Every game is important, but the conference games are where the most intense and meaningful competition comes.
The University of Maine kicks off its Colonial Athletic Association schedule, while all of Maine’s small-college teams begin league play during Saturday’s full slate of action.
Maine Black Bears (2-1, 0-0 CAA) at Richmond Spiders (2-1, 1-0 CAA), 3 p.m., UR Stadium, Richmond, Va.: Coach Jack Cosgrove’s Bears jump into conference play against the No. 2 Spiders, the first of three straight top-10 opponents.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for this football team,” Cosgrove said of the difficult road challenge. “We compete in the best FCS (Football Championship Subdivision) conference in the country. Conference play is really where it always matters and where it all shakes out.”
UMaine will try to get synched up on offense with a good blend of run and pass. It encounters a Richmond defense that has stifled opponents to 56 rushing yards per game.
Tailback Jhamal Fluellen (104.7 ypg) looks to extend his streak of 100-yard performances to four, but UMaine will need passing success. Quarterback Adam Farkes (38-for-71, 438 yds., 7 touchdowns, 2 interceptions) threw four first-half TD passes last week, with wide receiver Tyrell Jones (5 receptions, 88 yds., 2 TDs) grabbing two of those.
The Bears may be without speedy WR Landis Williams (10 rec., 83 yds., 2 TDs), who sustained a left foot/ankle injury last week.
The Spiders have given up a league-low 13.3 points and 272.7 yards per outing with a talented unit that includes linebacker Collin McConaghy (20 tackles), safety Derek Hatcher (17), and LB Eric McBride (16).
“They’re very fast,” Cosgrove said. “They have a defense that is capable of making big plays.”
Richmond made five interceptions last week against Towson and has eight on the season.
The Bears also must contend with a versatile offense. Josh Vaughan has netted 91.3 ypg rushing, while slippery QB Eric Ward (44-for-71, 559 yds, 4TDs, 2 INTs) throws to a receiver corps led by Kevin Grayson (18 rec., 308 yds., 1TD) and Tre Gray (11 rec., 86 yds.).
UMaine counters with a defense that looks first to stop the run. That responsibility rests on the shoulders of senior end and Buck Buchanan Award candidate Jovan Belcher (27 tackles), safety Lamir Whetstone (21), cornerback Lionel Nixon Jr. (20) and strong safety Brandon McLaughlin (17).
“They can play physical, but they can also throw the ball down the field,” Cosgrove said. “Against them, you’re going to be able to get a sense of your abilities as a defense.”
Bear tracks: UMaine’s secondary depth has been thinned by knee injuries. Starting cornerback Dominic Cusano and backup corner Trevor Coston are out for the season with torn anterior cruciate ligaments. Veteran CB Steven Barker was lost after tearing his ACL prior to the season.
Husson Eagles (1-1) at Norwich Cadets (0-2), 1 p.m., Norwich, Vt.: The Eagles of coach Gabby Price look to build off last week’s victory over Utica with a game against future North Atlantic Conference foe Norwich.
Husson continues to work toward improvement and consistency, sparked by a rushing attack led by Winslow product Justin Lindie (92.5 ypg) and Julius “Juice” Williams (65.0 ypg) along with freshman QB James McCandless (14-for-29, 192 yds., 1 TD).
Norwich has held opponents to 17.5 points and 317 yards per game, led by linebacker Jim Kiritsy (16 tackles).
The Eagles’ defense features free safety T.J. Vanidestine of Bangor (16 tackles), linebacker Bobby Gilbert of Beaver Cove (17 tackles, 3.5 sacks) and cornerback Darius Charlton (14 tackles). Husson has surrendered 421 ypg, including 281 through the air.
The Cadets boast a potent ground game that has piled up 205.5 ypg behind tailback Darnel Jackson (152.5 ypg).
Maine Maritime Acad. Mariners (0-2) at Western New England Golden Bears (0-2), 1 p.m., Springfield, Mass.: Coach Chris McKenney’s Mariners must try to overcome the disappointment of tough, back-to-back losses while opening their New England Football Conference Bogan Division schedule against the Golden Bears.
The Mariners are a few plays away from being unbeaten, so they must convert their frustration to motivation. The Mariners boast the top rushing attack in the league, with fullback Jim Bower (165.5 ypg, 5TDs) and QB Tyler Angell (69 ypg) helping them average a whopping 355 ypg.
Linebacker Travis Fergola’s 34 tackles spearhead the defense, which has surrendered 38 points and 368 yards per contest. Linebacker Wade Mondoux has 24 tackles.
WNEC has exhibited good balance behind the running of Jordan Capitani (152 ypg) and the passing of Justin Walz (36-for-65, 360 yds., 4 TDs). Rob Chiaccio has 12 catches for 128 yards and two TDs.
Today’s New England Small College Athletic Conference openers: Colby at Williams, Bates at Trinity, Bowdoin at Middlebury.