LINCOLN, Neb. – Prior to Saturday night’s season opener against perennial national football power Nebraska, the University of Maine football team faced many unknowns.
Although the Cornhuskers went 5-6 last year and may be a middle-of-the-pack team in the Big 12 this season, they have a huge advantage over the Black Bears in terms of talent base, depth, facilities, financial resources and fan support.
“You can only imagine the things people were saying,” junior offensive guard Justin Roberts said of the public’s perception of the matchup, in which Division I-AA UMaine was a huge underdog.
In the aftermath of a most respectable 25-7 loss to Nebraska, the Bears were feeling a general sense of pride in their performance and a confidence about their prospects for the rest of the season.
“We came out here, we battled; our defense stepped up,” said senior strong safety Joan Quezada. “We should be a legit team in the A-10 [Atlantic 10 Conference] after our performance today with a I-A team.”
Coach Jack Cosgrove’s Bears were picked to finish fourth in the A-10’s six-team Northern Division in the preseason coaches poll. In giving Nebraska a good test, a UMaine squad that has missed the playoffs the past two seasons discovered a lot about itself in both its ability to play the game and its mental toughness.
“The kids worked their fannies off,” said UMaine coach Jack Cosgrove. “It’s disappointing not to get a win but, realistically, we learned a lot about our football team tonight in a real positive manner.
“Confidence comes when you play decent football and you play as a team,” he added.
A defense that struggled during 2004, especially against the pass, demonstrated remarkable resilience. UMaine surrendered 313 yards of offense to the Cornhuskers, even with two freshman starters and other personnel changes.
UMaine held the run game in check (121 yards), allowed only one long pass completion, and repeatedly stood its ground deep in its own territory.
“We came out and our defense was backed up big-time in the third quarter and the defense held them to field goals, which really kept us alive,” Cosgrove said.
The Bears initiated two new players in key kicking positions as punter Rocco Navarro of Portland and place-kicker Bobby Donnelly of Westbrook made their UMaine debuts.
Navarro punted 13 times for a 39.8-yard average, while Donnelly converted his only conversion kick.
The Bears’ offensive line, with two newcomers, fought hard despite dealing with a talented Nebraska defense. The offense as a whole demonstrated resilience later in the game, mounting a scoring drive after appearing disjointed during much of the first half.
“Our offense, there was an obvious mismatch in terms of us trying to protect the quarterback,” Cosgrove said. “The speed of their defense and the size was where we really got caught up.”
The offense didn’t find out much about tailback Montell Owens, who carried eight times for 30 yards into the teeth of a swarming ‘Huskers defense.
Another cause for optimism was UMaine’s successful implementation of numerous first-year players against Nebraska.
The Bears used at least 12 first-year players Saturday night, including two defensive starters in linebacker Jovan Belcher and cornerback Lamir Whetstone. UMaine utilized at least four redshirt freshmen, among them starting offensive tackle Chris Arnao.
“We played a lot of young guys tonight,” Cosgrove said. “I think we’re going to need them the rest of the year, so we’re excited about what they did.”
In spite of serious reservations about having to take on Nebraska, the game appears to have provided UMaine with a huge lift heading into Saturday night’s game against William Penn and the rest of the season.
“We found out a lot about ourselves. I think there’s something special that’s going to be going on this year,” said junior quarterback Ron Whitcomb.