ORONO, Maine — It was the defense that set the tone for the University of Maine’s season-opening 23-6 football victory Saturday night at Norfolk State.

That effort, which limited the Spartans to 80 yards on the ground and only 224 total yards, was spearheaded by two players making their collegiate starting debuts.

Linebackers Cabrinni Goncalves and Chris Mulumba combined to make 20 tackles, including three quarterback sacks among four tackles for a loss of yardage.

Goncalves, a sophomore rover, had nine solo tackles among 13 stops with two sacks. Mulumba, a redshirt freshman middle linebacker, made seven tackles, including a sack, with an interception.

“They really stood out on our defensive side of the football, so it was really exciting to see a couple young guys produce like that,” UMaine coach Jack Cosgrove said during Monday’s Colonial Athletic Association media teleconference.

Goncalves, a 5-foot-10, 207-pounder, sat out the 2011 season as a redshirt, then began coming into his own last fall on special teams. He steps in for graduated Troy Russell.

“Cabrinni is one of those gifts from heaven kind of walk-ons,” Cosgrove said. “[He] made an impact last year as a special-teams player and has had an outstanding spring and has made himself a starter throughout the course of preseason.”

Mulumba, a hard-hitting 6-1, 235-pounder from Montreal, was sidelined much of last season with a knee injury suffered during preseason. He fills the void left by the graduation of All-CAA choice Donte Dennis.

“Chris was a guy we were very excited about recruiting, but we couldn’t play him last year,” Cosgrove said. “He’s been champing at the bit, had a great spring as well.”

The UMaine coach also was pleased with the performance of redshirt freshman defensive tackle Darius Greene. He was in on three tackles, but was a force in the Bears’ run-stopping success.

““He was a very active, run-to-the-ball kind of guy and he was very difficult to block,” Cosgrove said of the 6-2, 284-pounder from Medford, N.Y.

“They tried to run the football with their tailback, the BC [Boston College] transfer [Rolandan Finch], early in the game and he was very much involved in putting an end to that and forcing them to throw the ball a little bit more.”

Cosgrove also singled out the performance of junior Arron Achey (three tackles) at linebacker and on special teams.

Special teams solid

One important element of the Black Bears’ win at Norfolk State was their effectiveness on special teams.

That included efforts on UMaine’s punt, kickoff, field-goal, return and kick-coverage units.

For starters, place-kicker Sean Decloux put 11 points on the scoreboard with his leg. The sophomore converted three of four field-goal attempts, connecting from 33, 41 and 26 yards.

He missed a 41-yarder in the second quarter.

Decloux also averaged 62.5 yards on kickoffs, helping limit Norfolk State to an average starting field position of its own 19-yard line.

Junior Jeff Ondish responded in the punt game, averaging 45 yards per kick, all of which were inside the 20-yard line. He was complemented by a coverage team that afforded the Spartans only three returns good for seven yards.

“We did a lot of real good things on special teams and I think that really resonated through our football team,” Cosgrove said. “Nothing spectacular, but just really played well there.”

Perhaps most important was UMaine’s ability to keep Norfolk State pinned in its own end and enable the Bears to preserve good field position most of the night.

Bears demonstrate depth

The Black Bears were confronted at Norfolk with not only temperatures in the 80s but humid conditions.

They combated the sticky situation by an aggressive pregame hydration regimen, but also kept their starters fresher by utilizing backup players.

That dynamic was most notable on defense, where UMaine had 24 players register at least one tackle.

“I thought we responded well,” Cosgrove said. “Having the volume of guys that we could play was definitely a bonus.”

Back to the future

UMaine has begun preparations to take on the first of its two Football Bowl Subdivision opponents this season.

The Bears will head to Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., home of the NFL’s New England Patriots, for Saturday’s 2 p.m. game against former conference rival Massachusetts of the Mid-American Conference.

“Our guys are excited about that and about taking on an FBS opponent that we have some familiarity with,” Cosgrove said.

UMass opened the season with a 45-0 loss at 23rd-ranked Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium. The Minutemen were 1-11 in 2012, their first season at the FBS level.

Pete Warner

Pete graduated from Bangor High School in 1980 and earned a B.S. in Journalism (Advertising) from the University of Maine in 1986. He grew up fishing at his family's camp on Sebago Lake but didn't take...