The University of Maine’s defensive unit had allowed 37.8 points per game through its first five games en route to a 1-4 record.
But the Black Bears have had a resurgence on the defensive side of the ball, allowing just 16 points apiece in victories over William and Mary (27-16) and Albany (19-16).
In this past Saturday’s game at Albany, the Black Bear defense preserved the win by forcing the Great Danes to turn the ball over as redshirt freshman Shakur Smalls broke up a fourth-and-8 pass attempt.
UMaine’s defense registered a season-high three sacks and held Albany to one third-down conversion on 10 tries.
It’s a promising sign of improvement for a defense that just three weeks ago allowed Elon to convert 12 of 16 third downs en route to a 33-23 victory against UMaine in Orono.
UMaine head coach Nick Charlton said during Monday’s weekly Colonial Athletic Association coaches conference call that he and his coaching staff had some “pretty serious conversations” with the defensive players after the Elon game.
“We needed to make changes. After that, the guys practiced really, really well. They had energy and tempo and they went about their business the way they needed to,” Charlton said.
“We have turned a corner. Now we have to keep it going against a very good Rhode Island team on Saturday. We have to continue to move in the right direction.”
Albany was 4-for-6 on fourth downs but Smalls and the Black Bears stopped Albany on its most important fourth down conversion attempt at the end of the game.
Cornerbacks Richard Carr, a senior, and freshman Kahzir Brown did not allow a completion on passes to receivers they were covering.
And the secondary was without safety Fofie Bazzie for most of the game. Bazzie, who entered the game as the team’s leading tackler, took just six snaps due to an injury.
Sophomore Robby Riobe filled in nicely, Charlton said.
“Our secondary is young but it’s growing,” said Charlton, who expects to have Bazzie back for the URI game on Saturday.
The linebacking corps of Ray Miller, Adrian Otero and Xavier Nurse has played consistently well every week, according to the UMaine coach.
Campbell University (North Carolina) transfer Miller leads the team in tackles with 53, followed by Bazzie’s 52, Otero’s 44 and Nurse’s 37. Miller has 3.5 tackles for loss, Otero has 2.5 and Nurse has two.
Miller and Otero each have interceptions with Otero’s coming in the end zone two weekends ago on William and Mary’s last drive to sew up the win.
That was one of UMaine’s two interceptions on the day as the defense has been forcing turnovers in recent games.
Smalls also has 37 tackles to go with four pass breakups. He and Bazzie each have a team-high four pass breakups.
Charlton also likes the fact his defensive line has been “swarming to the football” and defining the line of scrimmage.
“They have been aggressive but they have also been very disciplined,” he said. “It’s still a work in progress.”
The defensive line features Josh Levin (22 tackles), Justin Sambu (22), Xavier Mitchell (20), Austin Chambers (20) and Khairi Manns (17). Manns has 2.5 tackles for loss.
The line has been without injured three-year starter Jamehl Wiley for several weeks and the secondary has been down injured veterans Katley Joseph and Shaquille St-Lot all season.
Charlton likes the fact his team has been able to close out games the last two weeks, something they didn’t do the first five games.
“They’re learning how to win and a big part of it is closing out games,” he said. “You have to be able to execute in key situations if you are going to win football games.”
He was not happy with his offense and said it will have to play better this Saturday against a 5-2 Rhode Island team (3-2 in the conference) that is coming off a 44-0 loss to league leader Villanova and a 28-7 loss to Towson.
‘“We don’t put any stock in their last two games. They’re a very good football team. They have a lot of playmakers on offense. They have some very good receivers. And their defense plays with a lot of energy. It will be a big test for us.”
On the injury front, in addition to getting Bazzie back, he expects to have running back Elijah Barnwell available full-time after he was sidelined by an ankle injury. Barnwell was in for a handful of plays at the end of the Albany game.
Sambu (lower body injury) is questionable.