ORONO, Maine — From the outset, the University of Maine football team knew it was going to be challenged by its inexperience on offense.
That dynamic emerged as the overriding shortcoming for the Black Bears, who closed out a 5-6 season (4-4 Colonial Athletic Association) in Saturday’s 20-12 loss to top-ranked New Hampshire at Alfond Stadium.
Despite fielding a defense that ranked among the upper echelon of the Football Championship Subdivision in key statistical categories, coach Jack Cosgrove’s team was anemic on offense.
The Black Bears also endured a rash of injuries that claimed several key players for much or all of the season.
In spite of its deficiencies, UMaine won three of its last four games and took UNH to the wire in the finale, providing optimism looking toward 2015.
“[The] 5-6 [record] isn’t pleasant but the growth is,” Cosgrove said. “In particular, the last month or so we’ve found a way to learn how to win and learned how to prepare better for winning.”
Linebackers Chris Mulumba Tshimanga (team-leading 95 tackles) and Cabrinni Goncalves (74 tackles, 3 interceptions) along with end Trevor Bates of Westbrook (60 tackles, 5 ½ sacks, 3 INTs) were the catalysts on the defense.
The Black Bears ranked second in CAA total defense, allowing 316.7 yards per game, and were fourth in scoring defense (21.3 ppg). UMaine was No. 2 against the pass, giving up 172.2 ypg while racking up a league-leading 14 interceptions.
Senior safety Khari Al-Mateen (48 tackles, 2 INTs) headed the secondary, while freshman linebacker Zach Hume (46 tackles, 5 ½ sacks), sophomore tackle Pat Ricard (46 tackles, 4 ½ sacks) and sophomore safety Davonte Burke (46 tackles), junior LB Randy Samuels (38 tackles, 2 INTs), sophomore tackle Darius Greene (33 tackles) and senior safety Pat Pascal (32 tackles) all were among the top 10 tacklers.
UMaine was eighth in the FCS in pass efficiency defense and ranked fourth in the CAA against the run (144.5 ypg).
Senior noseguard Matt Wilson (31 tackles), freshman cornerback A.J. Dawson (27 tackles), junior corner Sherrod Baltimore (27), freshman linebacker Austin Brown (23 tackles, 1 INT), senior corner Axel Ofori (20 tackles, 1 INT), freshman cornerback Najee Goode (19 tackles, 1 INT), freshman linebacker Ben Davis and first-year safety Darrius Hart, along with senior tackle Devin Clark, were among the regular contributors.
The UMaine staff decided early on to utilize a handful of first-year players and thus built its depth. That will ease the transition with the loss of Al-Mateen, Pascal and Ofori in the secondary and Wilson and Clark up front. The Bears will welcome back end Mike Kozlakowski, who was limited to one game by injury (torn biceps).
On offense, there was too little experience at key positions to enable the Bears to mount a formidable attack.
UMaine was 12th (last) in CAA total offense at 259.1 ypg and ranked ninth in scoring at 16.4 ppg. The Bears managed only 109.3 ypg via the run and 149.8 ypg through the air.
The key challenge was at quarterback, where sophomore Dan Collins (77-for-143 passing, 908 yards, 9 touchdowns, 2 INTs) won the job only to suffer a season-ending shoulder injury at Towson.
That fast-forwarded the learning curve for freshman Drew Belcher (77-for-152, 740 yds., 3 TDs, 3 INTs) who, like Collins, continued to exhibit improvement with each game.
If healthy, Collins should again duel with Belcher, a rugged run threat, for the starting job heading into next season.
The QB’s job should be significantly easier thanks to the growth of the offensive line, which was anchored by junior center Bruce Johnson and junior guard Dan Carriker. Freshmen Isaiah Brooks and Jamil Demby were thrust into starting roles while junior Ben Wezel saw his first sustained action.
Freshman Dan Burrows also saw quality time while Chase Hoyt hopes to overcome injury issues and stay in the lineup as a senior.
UMaine will have a diverse cast of running backs and receivers, despite losing senior wideouts Damarr Aultman (48 receptions, 498 yds., 2 TDs) and Art Williams (16-174-3).
Freshman Nigel Beckford (118 carries, 471 yds., 5 TDs) stepped into the starting role at tailback after junior Nigel Jones was lost to concussion issues. Belcher finished as the No. 2 rusher (115-312-2), but freshman TB Jerickson Fedrick 927-107-1) showed promise.
Sophomore WR Jordan Dunn (33-282-3), sophomore tight end Jeremy Salmon (13-288-1) and freshman Jared Osumah (13-128) demonstrated big-play ability, while freshman Micah Wright barely got started before being lost to an injury. Tight ends Sean Reuss and Max Andrews of Holden also return as juniors.
The Bears’ offensive struggles also hampered the potential effectiveness of junior place-kicker Sean Decloux, who converted 10 of 12 field goals and 16 of 20 PAT kicks. They’ll have to replace senior punter Jeff Ondish, who helped UMaine rank fifth in CAA net punting (35.7 yards per punt).
The Bears hope to use this season as motivation toward improving for 2015.
“Losing this [UNH] game and how this season turned out is definitely going to be a constant reminder for the off season, throughout spring ball, throughout the summer,” Bates said. “It’s going to push us and force us to take our team to another level.”