Playing football in the Atlantic 10 has a way of bringing out humility in even the best players and most confident coaches.
That isn’t an issue for always humble coach Jack Cosgrove and his University of Maine team.
Now riding a three-game winning streak, and sitting at 4-0 in conference play, the 15th-ranked Black Bears (5-2) appear to be emerging as a legitimate contender to earn an NCAA playoff spot, if not a share of the A-10 title.
Even so, they aren’t willing, publicly, to entertain the subject of postseason.
“We’re just trying to get ready for the University of Rhode Island,” Cosgrove said Monday.
“We’re really just keeping things in perspective. We have a great level of respect for the conference and the teams in it on a week to week basis.”
UMaine handled Hofstra 21-10 Saturday at Alfond Stadium, continuing its solid all-around play. The Bears are now ranked 15th in The Sports Network Division I-AA top 25 poll.
“I think our new goal now is to step it up each week and keep getting better and better,” said senior defensive tackle and co-captain Mike DeVito. “I think we can do a lot better than we did [Saturday].”
The Bears are aware of the developing scenario. Along with North Division rival Massachusetts (6-1) and South leader James Madison (6-1), UMaine is one of three unbeaten teams in A-10 play.
New Hampshire (5-2, 2-2 A-10) was shocked 36-35 in overtime Saturday at Northeastern, the Wildcats’ second straight conference loss.
In a typical year, the Atlantic 10 has three representatives in the NCAA Division I-AA playoff field. That means UMaine likely would assure itself of a spot by winning three of its last four contests and would guarantee itself a berth by winning out.
“One of the things that we have pledged to do from Day 1 is work on this as a week to week operation,” Cosgrove said. “If on Saturday we’re successful, then we’ll be in better shape than we were the week before.”
Whitcomb taking it easy
UMaine senior quarterback Ron Whitcomb was limited to doing some light throwing during the team’s Sunday practice after a physical game Saturday against Hofstra.
The 6-foot-2, 208-pounder wound up taking some hard shots during the contest, and eventually was replaced late in the fourth quarter as a precautionary measure.
“Ronny was slow getting up. There was an uneasiness about how he was looking at us … and his general presentation wasn’t what it usually is,” Cosgrove said. “And Mike Brusko is very capable of going in there and running our offense.”
Brusko, a redshirt freshman, handled the last seven snaps as the Bears put the game away with two first downs.
UMaine took its mandatory day off Monday and returns to the field Tuesday afternoon. Whitcomb will be evaluated by the training staff to determine his availability for practice.
Bears’ special teams shine
Special teams can make the difference between winning and losing. After a lackluster performance by UMaine’s kicking and kick coverage teams last season, the Bears have made significant improvements.
That progress was in evidence Saturday, when UMaine executed both an onside kick and a fake punt while converting three extra-point kicks and punting well in spite of a strong 20-plus mph wind.
“That’s something we’re really harping on a lot,” Cosgrove said. “I think we spend as much time as anybody in the country on it in terms of practice reps.”
The architect of the big plays by the special teams was first-year assistant coach Andy Rondeau, UMaine’s special teams coordinator and defensive backs coach.
“It was great coaching by Andy Rondeau,” Cosgrove said. “He comes at me with this stuff; we looked at it; I liked it. He whispers it in my year and I get the pleasure of calling it.”
The Bears pulled off the onside kick after scoring their second touchdown. Luigi Sebastiani Jr. popped the kick down the right side and Lamir Whetstone, UMaine’s kick returner, pounced on it, uncontested.
“It was something we felt that we could execute given a situation in the game. It was there,” Cosgrove said.
Rondeau, who drew up the onside kick last Tuesday, then saw the potential for the fake field goal, which he pitched the following day.
On the same drive initiated by the onside kick, the Bears faced fourth-and-goal at the 5-yard line. They lined up for a field goal, but backup quarterback Mike Brusko instead took the snap and found a seam to the end zone on the left side.
Cosgrove also applauded Whetstone for handling kicks in the stiff wind.
“They’re [special teams] hard to practice during the week, but you’ve got to dedicate the time, the effort and the energy,” Cosgrove said. “We get the guys excited about it and I think they’re playing that way.”