*Maine plays at the Division I-AA level (meaning they offer 65 football scholarships compared to the I-A maximum of 85). State's last game with a lower-Division team was in 2002 when the Bulldogs beat Jacksonville State 51-13 at Scott Field. Prior to that the last inter-Divisional game for State was against East Tennessee State in 1998, another MSU win.
*This is the only I-A game Maine plays in 2004.
Black Bear Outlook:
At their I-AA level the Black Bears are a national force to be reckoned with and they were ranked in preseason publications in the top-five. Now ranked #15 in the latest division Sports Network poll, Maine is coming off a 38-0 whipping of then-#23-ranked Northern Colorado. They opened the season with a 27-20 loss at #3-ranked Montana. The program has gotten used to success under Jack Cosgrove's direction. The former All-ECAC star quarterback spent six seasons, from 1987-92, as offensive coordinator at his alma mater before taking over as head coach for 1993. After three tough early years of 3-8 results Cosgrove got things on a better track, and since 2001 his teams have gone 9-3, 11-3, and 7-5 with a 19-8 record in the Atlantic 10 and a pair of conference championships. The 1978 Maine grad has built a fundamentally solid ball team and developed headline talent at the skill positions, with five Bears on preseason watch-lists.
Coach Sylvester Croom says that if a team has a strong quarterback, top-notch runner, and big-play receiver, they can have an outstanding offense. Maine features each of those ingredients. The headliner is Marcus Williams, a senior tailback who ought to become the school's all-time rushing leader before he's through. Williams, a Payton Award nominee, has 3,053 career yards already and opened with a 105-yard effort against Montana. He's averaging over five yards a carry so far, and despite a stocky 5-10, 230-pound frame Williams can break it long. Freshman Keien Williams is being groomed to take over next year and gets over seven yards a tote in mop-up play. With a big hoss to carry the ball Maine is built around the ground game, netting 160 yards a game. But the Bears can and will go to the air with sophomore Ron Whitcomb pulling the trigger. As a freshman he tossed 21 touchdown passes and tallied 2,482 yards, each the most ever by a Bear frosh and earning him A-10 Rookie of the Year. A season older Whitcomb (6-2, 219) has picked right up where he left off; he has completed 38-of-54 throws in two games, 70%, with four touchdowns already in the books. With stats like that the thrower must have some quality catchers, and all three of ‘03's top receivers are back for another season. The best of the bunch is seniors Christian Periera, who had 820 yards and ten TDs last fall. He's begun '04 in style with 149 yards on a dozen grabs with two touchdowns. Ryan Waller (5 for 65) and Kevin McMahan (6 for 53) are juniors complementing the upperclassman and keeping secondaries spread out. Maine has started different schemes in the first two games, opening in a three-wideout set against Montana before pulling one receiver in favor of a fullback for the Northern Colorado win. There's experience and size in the blocking here, with three returned starters. The right side, with tackle Mark Lehner and guard Mike Leconte, is all-senior with juniors starting the other three slots. Average weight across the line: 293 pounds, with 300-pounders at both tackles standing 6-3. This is not a bunch to be pushed around at any level.
Good defenses like nifty nicknames, and Maine has one of each. The ‘Black Hole' squad comes into this game ranked ninth in Division I-AA in rushing defense, allowing under 73 yards a weekend. They handed Northern Colorado its first shutout in a dozen years by giving up just 28 rushing yards. Even #3-ranked Montana managed just 125 yards on 33 runs. It's no secret how Maine does it. The Bears show the typical interior line of two ends and a set of tackles, but with a pair of strong safeties it becomes essentially an eight-man front. The best of those ‘extra linebackers' is senior Brandon McGowan, a 6-0, 217-pound senior who gets all around the field. He both tackles behind the line and picks off passes, playing up to his preseason All-A.10 billing. Junior Joan Quezada is the other SS and of real LB size at 222 pounds. They flank a solid front-four of surprising stature. Senior Pat Pa'u stands 6-5, 254 and lines up on the nose with 6-3, 275-pound Mike DeVito the standard tackle. Senior Marcus Walton, 6-2 and 253, benefits from the bulk inside to make things happen behind the line of scrimmage; he has four tackles there already. Oh, and the #2 defensive line is actually heavier than the starters. ILB Jermaine Walker, 6-0 and 233, currently leads in team tackles with 13 by supporting the front. Playing a wide front does bring some risks by leaving the cornerbacks isolated, and through two games the Bears have allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 67% of their passes for three touchdowns and 176 yards per game. But Maine has also snagged five interceptions already, returning two for touchdowns, so the coverage can't be picked on without risk. FS Darren Stone has a pair of INTs to his credit. This is a solid I-AA defense and one to be respected at any level. It also starts strong; the Bears have not allowed any points in the first quarter through two games this year, and going back midway of last season Maine has outscored foes 56-7 in their most recent six games.
Senior Mike Mellow simplifies things for the kicking coaches, by taking care of both specialist jobs. He's averaged 41.5 yards punting so far and been good on his only field goal try, a 33-yarder. McMahan is off to a great start running back punts with 63 yards on five plays. Kickoff returns are nothing to brag about, so far.
The teams have never met in football. Or for that matter in basketball, men or women. The only contact with Black Bears has been in baseball, with State playing in the 1991 Orono Regional. There the Diamond Dogs beat the home team in the second round, but after a loss to Clemson were eliminated by Maine in the loser's bracket. We're just trying to fill space here, folks.
*Wellll, there aren't any. Unless you want to look at the few Black Bears hailing from Southern states such as Matthew Keahon (Georgia), and Mark Lehner, Ron and Ryan Waller (Virginia). Only 15 Bears are Maine natives, with 24 players signed out of New Jersey.
Did You Know?
*This is Maine's first game against a Division I-A program since 1991 (Rutgers).
*Maine hasn't started a season out 1-2 since 1999. The Bears have not been held scoreless since 1995.
How They Compare:
NOTE: Comparing teams not just from totally distinct regions but entirely different Divisions is risky and maybe meaningless. For this matchup purpose, we will try to ignore the I-A vs. I-AA factor which would obviously favor State. Besides, Coach Croom is preparing as if Maine were a SEC foe, thus so should we, OK?
Quarterback: State, considering
Whitcomb has proven himself a proficient passer and efficient leader. He's also won games, which can't be overemphasized. Fellow sophomore Conner is surely the far better athlete and already showing himself to be a team sparkplug, both physically and emotionally.
Running Backs: State
True, Williams would be a positive ground-gainer at any level. That said, one good Bear shouldn't offset two fast Dogs with big-play potential as runners and catchers. And Norwood and Reid have Jones blocking for ‘em.
Offensive Line: mmmm…State
If the Bulldog front was healthy this would be a clear State strength. As it is the group is holding together with duct tape and bailing wire and hoping to get through this one with no new casualties. Bear front is worthy of respect on size alone, but they've also got experience…winning experience, too.
A good receiver merits respect at any level. Maine has one really good ‘un and a solid supporting cast. Here too State has some injury issues. But the Bulldog catchers are showing some pretty encouraging signs through two games, and will get better along with Conner.
Defensive Line: State
It's not an automatic win, though, as Bear front looks pretty good on paper. Add the extra help from a stacked set they look better. That said, even with starting shuffles this is a stronger point for State and the best line Maine will see this year.
Not that the MSU ‘backers have set the world on fire so far, but you have to like the potential as this group is pushed daily to improve. Maine men do their job well in run support, but pass game is another matter.
This is where Maine looks most vulnerable. Bear DBs can make plays and pick off passes but give up a LOT of yards. State secondary is still developing and needs a solid effort this week in both coverage and consistency.
The biggest MSU edges are here, especially in both returns and coverages. Cook is off to a slow start but will be OK, while Andrews hasn't had a chance to show his stuff yet. This could be his turn.
Sure, the Bears will be inspired by this opportunity to make program history. But they aren't sneaking up on the Bulldogs, who will themselves be appropriately motivated…or else the coach will field someone who is. With emotions even it comes down to talent on talent, as it should. A strong Saturday sun to turn post-Ivan rain into Scott Field humidity would play into State's favor. And what's with all those Maine penalties, 21 in two games already? That's something the Dogs might be able to exploit.
Mississippi State is trying to put most of the recent past behind, but you can bet the phrase ‘remember Troy State' gets bandied about a few times this week. Which is another way of saying the Bulldogs aren't being allowed to take this inter-Division matchup for granted. I don't think they would have anyway, with a season still young and some starting jobs being determined on a week-by-week basis. The real concerns here are the tenuous health of the O-line, which has a ripple effect on offensive confidence; and how much improvement the defense makes in playing the run. Take care of those fundamental matters and the Bulldogs should gradually overpower these visitors, while gaining valuable confidence in the process.