University of Maine head coach Jordan Stevens during the Black Bears home opener on Sept. 10, 2022. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The University of Maine football team’s heartbreaking 42-41 overtime loss to New Hampshire on Saturday was a microcosm of the Black Bears’ season.

The team fell behind early in most games, rallied in the fourth quarter and had opportunities to win games late in regulation or in overtime but simply couldn’t make plays in the critical moments to secure a victory.

UMaine ended its season 2-9 overall and 2-6 in Colonial Athletic Association play, which is just the second time in school history that the Black Bears have lost nine games. The other time was 1979.

Five of those losses were by four points or fewer. In another game, a 31-21 loss to Richmond, UMaine trailed by a touchdown in the fourth quarter. It was the difference between being 2-9 and 8-3.

Throughout the season, the UMaine defense couldn’t make stops when it needed to and the offense couldn’t convert pivotal third and fourth down plays into first downs to extend drives leading to points during crunch time.

Two games came down to missed field goals, including a potential game-tying 47-yarder by Cole Baker in the 21-18 loss to Colgate and a game-winning 46-yarder in a 28-27 loss to winless Stony Brook.

But the Black Bear offense could have made Baker’s job easier by giving him shorter field goals. They had second-and-8 on the Colgate 28 with 40 seconds left but the drive stalled there.

At Stony Brook, UMaine had a first-and-10 at the Stony Brook 33-yard line with 1:31 to go but only managed to gain 6 yards on the next three plays.

UMaine erased three 14-point deficits in the UNH game, tied it 35-35 with 3:11 left and got the ball at its own 25 with 1:52 remaining. But it couldn’t parlay its momentum into a game-winning drive so the game went into overtime.

In overtime, a wonderful highlight-reel trick play involving two laterals ended in a 31-yard touchdown by freshman Rohan Jones to pull UMaine within 42-41.

UMaine first-year head coach Jordan Stevens decided to go for the two-point conversion and the win, which was the right call and is what UNH coach Rick Santos said he would have done in the same circumstance.

But the pass failed, and it was a cruel end to the campaign.

Beating UNH would have taken a lot of the sting out of the forgettable season, especially for those who were playing their last games in a UMaine uniform. UNH’s season continues as it will play in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.

The Black Bear defense wasn’t good enough this season. Simple as that.

It allowed 54 plays of 20 or more yards, including five of 30 or more against UNH.

UMaine allowed 31.6 points and 412.5 yards per game.

That is not a recipe for success.

UMaine had serious issues in the secondary, where it was inexperienced and had problems covering receivers.

Opposing quarterbacks completed 64.4 percent of their passes.

“Our pass defense needs to improve a lot,” said Stevens, who added that the team will have to limit the big plays.

The Black Bears did have 22 sacks — 10 more than last season — but Stevens noted that his defensive linemen and linebackers need to “be better impacting the quarterback.”

He said that they don’t need to get more sacks, but they have to get more consistent pressure on quarterbacks so they are forced to throw the ball sooner than they would like to.

The defense, which also needs to tackle better, will be somewhat revamped.

Linebackers and co-leading tacklers Brian Lee Jr. and Adrian Otero, who both had 72 tackles, will have to be replaced. Otero had two interceptions and four pass breakups and Lee Jr. had two sacks.

Nose tackle Raffaele Salamone and end Jamehl Wiley, who had 39 tackles each, will depart. Wiley led the team with 8.5 tackles for loss and was second in sacks (4.5).

End Xavier Mitchell (42 tackles) and cornerback Benito Speight (16 tackles) are also done.

The Black Bears do have a budding star in cornerback Kahzir “Buggs” Brown, their best cover man who led the team in pass breakups with nine and was third in tackles with 59. He suffered a lower body injury late in the loss at Albany and missed the UNH game. He also had two interceptions.

Sacks leader Justin Sambu (5.5), who also had 7 tackles for loss among his 32 tackles, and Khairi Manns (43 tackles,  6.5 TFL, 4 sacks) will return and anchor the defensive line.  Xavier Nurse (29 tackles, 4 TFL) is back at linebacker and among the returnees in the secondary along with Brown are Shakur Smalls (48 tackles), Robbie Riobe (38 tackles) and Austin Ambush (37 tackles).

The offensive line allowed 23 sacks but finished on a high note as UMaine rushed for 336 yards against a UNH defense that had surrendered just 114 per game entering the contest.

It will have to replace All-CAA center Mike Gerace, who played in 50 games during his impressive career.

The rest of the line returns virtually intact and should be significantly better next season.

Tackles Tyler Royal and Kevin Jones and guards David Gross and Tyrie Francois received a lot of valuable playing time this season.

UMaine will have to replace its top two playmakers in wide receiver Zavier Scott, who had a team-leading 898 all-purpose yards, along with leading rusher Elijah Barnwell (133 rushes, 630 yards). The dynamic Scott caught a team-leading 42 passes for 434 yards, carried the ball 39 times for 371 yards and returned three kickoffs for 93 yards.

Senior quarterback Joe Fagnano had a decent season, statistically, as he completed 57.1 percent of his passes for 2,231 yards and 15 touchdowns. And he became much more of a dual threat with a career-high 296 rushing yards on 93 carries.

He was intercepted six times and missed throws he was expected to make.

UMaine averaged 5.3 yards on its first down plays but converted only 42.8 percent of its third down plays.

The offense will need a bounceback year from Freddie Brock, who was coming off an injury and had a disappointing season (61 rushes, 260 yards) after leading the team in rushing a year ago (132-for-720). Montigo Moss (34 catches, 373 yards, 6 TDs) and All-CAA tight end Shawn Bowman (31-377, 5 TDs) had noteworthy seasons and should be key playmakers next year.  Bowman missed the last three games due to a lower body injury. Jones (9 catches) could also play a role in the offense.

The special teams should be good with kickoff returner Trevin Ewing (21.1 yards per return), standout punter Brian Cooey (42.8 yards per punt) and placekickers Baker (6-9 field goals, 28-28 PATs) and Cody Williams (3-4 field goals) back.

Stevens is optimistic about the future. He has several talented redshirts that will be contributors and recruiting has gone well so far, he said.

“We need to add depth and talent to our roster and we will be relentless in recruiting,” said Stevens. “We want to win. We need to get better every day.”