Taji Lowe (50), pictured during a game in 2016, is among a handful of key University of Maine football players who are expected to return to the lineup this week after sitting out with injuries. Credit: Ashley L. Conti

The University of Maine football team’s nationally ranked defense will be bolstered by the return of two linebackers for Saturday’s 3 p.m. game at Football Bowl Subdivision team Central Michigan.

Sophomore Jaron Grayer, the team’s leading tackler last season (79) and junior Taji Lowe (38), missed the 31-28 victory over FBS team Western Kentucky on Sept. 8 because of minor injuries.

Head coach Joe Harasymiak said both will be ready this weekend.

Starting center Chris Mulvey, who didn’t play against WKU, also will be back as will junior wide receiver Earnest Edwards, who suffered an injury early in that game and didn’t return.

The 2-0 Black Bears, who are ranked 13th in one national poll and 16th in another, had an open date last weekend.

“Those four guys will have to work through some pain and nagging stuff, but they have been cleared to play and they’re ready to go,” Harasymiak said.

The Black Bears, who also have a season-opening 35-7 win over New Hampshire on their resume this season, have the nation’s best FCS rushing defense (13.5 yards per game). They also lead the nation with six sacks per game.

UMaine is tied for 10th in tackles for loss per game (9.5) and is 14th in total yards allowed with 248.5.

“Any time you have a good defense, it comes down to swarming to the football and being excited to play. It’s the relentless pursuit to get guys to the ground,” said Harasymiak, who was the defensive coordinator at UMaine before taking over for Jack Cosgrove as the head coach three years ago.

He credited his team’s run defense efficiency to its tackling and the fact UMaine returns its front seven and is playing with confidence.

The defense has been led by senior linebacker Sterling Sheffield, sophomore linebacker Deshawn Stevens, junior cornerback Manny Patterson and junior nose tackle Charles Mitchell, and senior special-teams player and linebacker Mozai Nelson.

Stevens leads the team in tackles with 17 and has recovered two fumbles, returning one 50 yards for a touchdown. Sheffield has been involved in 16 tackles and his 1.75 sacks per game is tied for fourth in the country. He has forced a fumble and had a pass breakup.

Patterson has been in on 10 tackles and has a team-high four pass breakups, and Mitchell has also had 3.5 tackles for loss. Nelson has seven tackles, including two sacks, and a forced fumble.

Offensively, the Black Bears have shown good balance, averaging 216.5 passing yards and 172.5 rushing yards behind sophomore quarterback Chris Ferguson.

Harasymiak said offensive coordinator Nick Charlton and the staff have done a good job with matchups and formations, putting guys in situations to be successful.

Junior Joe Fitzpatrick has run for 162 yards on 38 carries (4.3 yards per carry) with a TD and redshirt freshman Ramon Jefferson has racked up 134 in 24 carries (5.6 ypc) and a score.

Ferguson (32-for-59 passing, 384 yds., 5 TDs) has been intercepted once. He has completed passes to eight different receivers led by seniors Drew Belcher (8 catches, 61 yds.) and Micah Wright (6-for-102, 3 TDs).

UMaine practiced only two days last week and now it is back in a normal routine with an 0-3 Central Michigan team awaiting them.

Central Michigan, coached by former UMaine assistant John Bonamego, has been to bowl games each of the past four seasons. The Chippewas were 8-5 a year ago and lost to Wyoming 37-14 in the Idaho Potato Bowl.

“They won eight games last year, and they’re extremely hungry to get their first win. They are well-coached and they’re big, physical kids,” Harasymiak said.

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