If Saturday’s game against then 17th-ranked Towson is to serve as a measuring stick for the University of Maine football team, the Black Bears appear to be continuing their growth as the midpoint of the 2006 season approaches.
Coach Jack Cosgrove’s squad improved to 3-2 overall, 2-0 in Atlantic 10 play, with a convincing 28-7 victory that has earned UMaine a No. 23 ranking in two Division I-AA national polls.
The Bears have climbed into the top 25 for the first time since Oct. 30, 2004, when they held the No. 19 position.
“I thought obviously it was a very important game for us,” Cosgrove said Monday after UMaine completed a string of four road contests in the first five weeks.
“We’ve made significant strides,” he continued. “I think each and every week we’ve found out a little bit more about ourselves.”
UMaine, which faces Villanova (2-3, 1-1 A-10) in Saturday’s 2 p.m. game at Alfond Stadium in Orono, had all three phases of its team complement each other against Towson.
While the defense surrendered 290 passing yards, it put relentless pressure on Tigers quarterback Sean Schaefer, sacked him nine times, and forced three turnovers.
It all began up front, with the starting defensive line group of ends Matt King and Pat McCrossan, along with tackles Mike DeVito and Bruno Dorismond. That quartet accounted for 25 tackles, including seven for a loss of yardage, among which five were QB sacks.
“I think if you look at our team, the most experienced and talented group of players in our program is our defensive line,” Cosgrove said.
However, linebackers John Wormuth (team-best 11 tackles), Andrew Downey (four tackles for a loss) and Jovan Belcher provided strong support, while the secondary forced Schaefer and Co. to settle almost exclusively for short passes. Free safety Jonathan Calderon posted 10 tackles and made an interception.
Special teams, which were a weakness last season, continue to make contributions. The Bears blocked a punt and returned it for a score while Kash Kiefer had another solid punting day (37.2-yard average, two inside the 20-yard line).
UMaine’s offense furthered its development with another strong rushing performance. Tailback Arel Gordon netted 100-plus yards for the fourth time in five outings, while QB Ron Whitcomb gained 74 yards to climb into eighth place among Atlantic 10 rushers.
Sophomore Syracuse transfer Jhamal Fluellen (25 yards, rushing, 3 catches, 44 yards) again made some key contributions.
“I think we’re continuing to get better,” Cosgrove said. “To have three drives go 70-plus yards for scores was exciting for us.”
Cosgrove also lauded the play of the offensive line, which includes three underclassmen. Junior tackle Jacob Folz had his best game as a Bear after taking over for redshirt freshman Jake Queener, who suffered a minor injury early in the first quarter at Towson.
“The offensive line is much, much improved,” Cosgrove said.
Villanova owns two-game streak
Villanova, UMaine’s Saturday opponent, brings a two-game win streak into the contest.
The Wildcats are coming off a 20-16 conference win last week at Hofstra during which included Joe Marcoux field goals of 20 and 42 yards.
The Bears have won three straight against Villanova.