The University of Maine football team has dug a huge hole for itself.
The Black Bears, coming off an open date, are 2-3 overall and 0-2 in the Colonial Athletic Association heading into Saturday’s home game with Richmond.
Their slow start means they will have to win at least six of their final seven games to return to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs — after reaching the FCS national semifinals last year for the first time in program history.
One of UMaine’s final seven games is against Football Bowl Subdivision team Liberty University, and the program has won only three such games in its history.
Even though the Black Bears are dealing with a number of inadequacies, the players feel strongly that they are capable of finishing with a flourish to earn an FCS playoff berth.
“There’s no doubt we’re going to answer the call,” junior quarterback Chris Ferguson said. “We’re going to persevere. It will make for an even better story in the end.”
He said UMaine didn’t play well in its losses, which cannot happen against good teams.
“The bye week gave us a chance to come together, and we’re going to come out a different team,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson ranks third in the FCS in passing yardage (1,622) and is sixth in yards per game (324.4), but he has thrown eight interceptions.
“I’ve got to be more decisive in where I’m throwing the ball. I’ve got to throw it to [the right] spots,” Ferguson said.
Establishing a consistent running game would take the pressure off Ferguson and the passing game, and make the Black Bears tougher to defend.
UMaine ranks 103rd among 124 FCS teams, averaging 98.2 rushing yards per game.
“We’ve got to do a better job up front. Everyone has to do a better job,” junior offensive lineman Chris Mulvey said.
“Anything is fixable. It comes down to whether or not you do it,” Mulvey said.
UMaine was 4-3 last season, but won six games in a row to claim the CAA title. It earned two playoff victories until Eastern Washington ousted the Black Bears from the playoffs.
“We can’t think about going 6-1. We have to take it one week at a time. I know it’s a cliche but it’s true,” Mulvey said.
Senior cornerback Manny Patterson said the Black Bears must maintain tunnel vision and focus on each opponent.
“We used the bye week to figure out what is going on, what is working and isn’t working,” Patterson said. “We’re going to come out with a whole new mindset.”
The defense has struggled due to numerous missed tackles and assignments. UMaine has forced only one turnover, a fumble.
“Forcing turnovers are very pivotal for a defense. You have to have takeaways. We preach that,” Patterson said.
He said the Black Bears must begin their turnaround immediately.
“It’s time for us to go hard now. No more holding back,” he said.
UMaine head coach Nick Charlton said his team had a useful week off, practicing four times and even fitting in a scrimmage.
“It was really productive. We worked on a lot of things,” Charlton said Monday. “And we’re getting healthier. [Linebacker] Jaron [Grayer] and [running back] Emmanuel [Reed] will play.”
Northern Illinois transfer Jordan Rowell, a running back who suffered a knee injury in August during the first intrasquad scrimmage, also is close to making his debut.
“He has definitely made strides the past couple of weeks. He would add a different element,” Charlton said of the 6-foot-3, 195-pounder‘s physicality.
Charlton said UMaine’s biggest issue is its minus-9 turnover margin. UMaine has lost two fumbles in addition to Ferguson’s eight interceptions.
“We’ve got to take care of the football and put people into bad spots [to force turnovers]. When we get that going, it’s going to be a big help to us,” Charlton said.