University of Maine third-year head football coach Joe Harasymiak said Saturday’s 50-19 loss to Eastern Washington in the program’s first Football Championship Subdivision semifinal appearance was disappointing.
“It’s tough to swallow. We’re better than that. But give credit to Eastern Washington,” Harasymiak said Monday.
The loss should not diminish a remarkable season for the Black Bears, who went 10-4 record including a 7-1 mark that earned them the Colonial Athletic Association championship.
And they may well be even better next season.
UMaine’s 55-27 victory over Jacksonville State in the second round of the FCS playoffs was its first home playoff victory, and the 23-18 triumph at Weber State was the first quarterfinal win in four tries.
UMaine returns eight starters on offense and eight on defense along with place-kicker Kenny Doak and punters Derek Deoul and David Gelb.
“Anytime you do something that has never been done before, you have to feel proud,” Harasymiak said. “The biggest thing is we set a new standard for Maine football, and we don’t want to take any steps backwards.”
He is excited about the future — and he should be.
Despite giving up a season-high 568 yards and 50 points to EWU, UMaine’s defense was the catalyst behind its success. The only departing members are second-team All-American and first team All-CAA linebacker Sterling Sheffield, strong safety and co-captain Jeffrey DeVaughn, and free safety Darrius Hart.
Sheffield finished with 84 tackles and team-highs in tackles for a loss (18) and sacks (9.5, tied with Kayon Whitaker). DeVaughn was fourth in tackles (74) and tied for first with three interceptions with three, and Hart was fifth in tackles with 72 (2 INTs).
The entire defensive line, three of the four linebackers who played regularly and both starting cornerbacks return.
The defense finished the season ranked No. 1 among 124 FCS schools in rushing defense (79.2 yards per game; 2.42 yards per carry) and fourth in sacks (3.36 per game).
UMaine’s defense was also third in turnovers gained (31).
Up front, the Black Bears have All-CAA second-teamer Whitaker (50 tackles, 11.5 TFL, 9.5 sacks) and Jamehl Wiley (32 tackles) along with Alejandro Oregon (29, 10 TFL) and Charles Mitchell (23 tackles, 7 TFL). Skylar Bowman (14 tackles, 2.5 TFL) will return.
The linebacking corps will be among the CAA’s best. All-CAA second-teamer Deshawn Stevens (team-leading 120 tackles, 17 TFL, 9 sacks) is a dominating force. Taji Lowe (85 tackles, 15 TFL) second on the team in tackles and Jaron Grayer posted 42 tackles, 7 TFL, 4 sacks, 2 INTs).
All-CAA first-team cornerback Manny Patterson, who led the country in passes defended (25) and pass breakups (22), and had three interceptions and 47 tackles, will headline the secondary along with freshman cornerback Katley Joseph (34 tackles).
Richard Carr (26 tackles), Erick Robertson and University of Connecticut transfer Jordan Swann, who blocked the potential game-tying field goal to preserve UMaine’s 31-28 win over Football Bowl Subdivision team Western Kentucky but missed the past 10 games due to injury, are back.
On offense, the Black Bears could have the league’s best receiving corps and welcome back all but one starting lineman, two-year starter Chris Ferguson at quarterback and All-America honorable mention running back Ramon Jefferson.
All-CAA third-team tackle Cody Levy must be replaced, but All-CAA second-team guard Liam Dobson, guard Migel Garcia, center Chris Mulvey and tackle Gunnar Docos are back along with Michael Gerace, who started at guard and center.
The elusive Jefferson became the first UMaine freshman to ever rush for 1,000 yards (1,037). He averaged 86.4 yards per game, 5.7 yards per carry and ranked 26th nationally in rushing. He scored eight touchdowns. He was elusive and had breakaway speed.
Hard-running back Joe Fitzpatrick of North Yarmouth (120 carries, 476 yds.) battled nagging injuries to have a productive year. Adrian Velez (14-for-78) and Daejuan Sanders (15-for-67), who were freshmen, will complement Jefferson and Fitzpatrick.
Ferguson showed significant improvement, completing 56.3 percent of his passes (209-for-371) for 2,372 yards and 22 TDs with 11 interceptions.
“He took a step forward,” Harasymiak said.
Ferguson missed parts of five games after injuring his throwing shoulder. He is a well-respected leader but needs to become more consistent. Backup quarterback Isaiah Robinson (49-for-105, 560 yards, 2 TDs, 6 INTs) has to elevate his game so he is ready to step in if needed.
The quarterbacks will benefit from a deep and talented group of receivers who can break a long play at any time.
Speedy All-CAA first-team kickoff returner Earnest Edwards (53 rec., 839 yds., 10 TDs), Jaquan Blair (43-572-5), Devin Young (33-221-1) and Andre Miller of Old Town (16-287-1) will pose problems for opponents.
Edwards returned two kickoffs for touchdowns against Elon, and his 114.07 all-purpose yards per game ranked 46th in the country. His 25.7 yards per kickoff return tied him for 23rd.
UMaine loses wide receiver Micah Wright (47-539-6) and tight end and co-captain Drew Belcher (46-357-1). Wright ranks fifth in program history with 168 receptions and 2,233 yards.
Redshirt freshmen Michael Laverriere and Daniel Rymer are candidates to replace Belcher.
Doak was 11-for-18 on field goals and won the Villanova (13-10) and Rhode Island (38-36) games with last-second field goals. He was 42-for-46 on extra points. Deoul averaged 37.1 yards per punt and Gelb averaged 36.1.
Some freshmen should be able to step in next season, and Harasymiak said UMaine’s march to the semifinals and two ESPN2 playoff appearances should help recruiting.
UMaine overcame the tragic loss of freshman defensive back Darius Minor, who collapsed and died during a freshman workout in July. The Bears also endured a grueling schedule that included nine road games.
UMaine learned to win close games, going 4-0 in games decided by three points or less, and went 5-1 in November and December after going 1-5 in November the previous two years.
Harasymiak’s teams have compiled an impressive three-year record of 15-9 in CAA games. UMaine was picked to finish eighth in the 2018 preseason poll.
It is important for UMaine to retain the 32-year-old Harasymiak, a charismatic and energetic coach who is well-liked and respected by his players. He finished sixth in the balloting for FCS Coach of the Year and is likely to be courted by other programs.