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Monday, Sept. 15, 10:41 a.m.
Sports

UMaine football reflects on 5-6 season

University of Maine football head coach Jack Cosgrove says greatness is measured in consistency. Coming off a 2011 campaign in which the Black Bears saw themselves go 8-3, finishing 8th overall in the country, and going the furthest any Colonial Athletic Association football team that year, the 2012 season brought great expectations.

Simply put, the Black Bears won the games they should have and were beat by the teams that were better than they were in 2012. UMaine finished 1-4 at home and 4-2 on the road.

“When you’re measured the way we are, with wins and losses, and you’re 5-6, there is a lot of negativity to that,” said Cosgrove, who just finished his 20th season as head coach for UMaine. “Expectations probably weren’t realistic.”

Success is synonymous with experience. UMaine graduated 17 seniors from a year ago and started 2012 with 14 seniors. Star safeties Trevor Coston and Jerome McMillian both took their chances in the NFL. Coston earned a tryout for the Chicago Bears. McMillian was drafted in the fourth round — the highest of any Black Bear in history — and is now playing football on Sundays for the Green Bay Packers.

By the end of the season in 2012, only six seniors traveled to the final game against Rhode Island — an already small number that was diminished by season-ending injuries.

“I’ve always felt you win with seniors,” Cosgrove said.

Despite losing a quarterback and a safety to graduation, players stepped into roles and improved drastically throughout the season. A bright spot came from first-year starter Jamal Clay. The junior from New Jersey stepped in to fill the void of last year safeties and transformed himself from a special teams player a year ago, to one of the best playmakers on the Black Bear defense. Clay finished the year with three interceptions and was the leading tackler for a couple of games.

However, UMaine had to face the injury bug. Preseason first-team selection Michael Cole was lost halfway through the season due to a brutal leg injury, which forced inexperienced players to play on the defensive line.

“We really lost some good players on defense,” Cosgrove said. “We didn’t expect to have the challenges we faced up front especially with the loss of Michael Cole. Here’s a guy who played five games and lead the entire CAA in sacks — still.”

Cole expects to return next season.

Despite the optimism for next year, the Black Bears will be losing some of its core that lead the Black Bears to five wins and earned five players All-CAA honors. Lineback Donte Dennis heads the group after leading the team with 86 tackles and earning first-team defense honors. Senior offensive lineman Chris Howley and junior tight end Justin Perillo also earned first-team honors. Also noteworthy, senior offensive lineman Josh Spearin and senior cornerback Darlos James earned second-team honors.

“Those guys will be hard to replace, but I think the experience we have at quarterback and running back will help,” Cosgrove said.

Junior quarterback Marcus Wasilewski took over the reins from Warren Smith and did a more than serviceable job. Wasilewski finished the season 206-for-338 passing, good for 60.9 percent, with 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, totaling 2,364 yards.

“I think he did better than Warren [Smith] in his junior year,” Cosgrove said. “We had new players in key places. Early in the year we weren’t as good at those spots as we were in the end.”

The Black Bears got a welcomed spark from their backfield this season, as two running backs, who began the season as third and fourth on the depth chart, ended up making major contributions toward the end of the season. Junior running back Rickey Stevens earned CAA Offensive Player of the Week in his second to last game of the season after gaining 179 yards on 21 carries and a touchdown against Georgia State. Freshman running back Nigel Jones earned CAA Rookie of the Week after rushing for 76 yards on 13 carries and a touchdown, added to a 76-yard receiving touchdown. Stevens finished the year with 137 rushes for 830 yards and two touchdowns and Jones chipped in 365 yards on only 49 carries and three touchdowns.

“I always joke that Rickey is our Danny Woodhead. He does everything. You trust him to make the block, to make the catch or to make the run,” Cosgrove said. “He has a higher level of self-esteem now.”

The highlight for the Black Bears came in their play the last two weeks of the season. First, UMaine pounded Georgia State at home in the senior game 51-7, before traveling to Rhode Island to beat the Rams 55-6 in their last game of the year. The two wins gave the Black Bears three wins in their last four games, ending the season on a positive note. UMaine will return 38 letterwinners next season.

“Those two teams combined for one win, but our team beat them the way we should have beat them. We didn’t let down, we respected our opponents, and sometimes those intangibles in a program are as valuable as your skill level,” Cosgrove said.

There is promise for UMaine next season, but Black Bear faithfuls are hopeful Cosgrove will return to Maine as his contract expires in June. Since 2001 the Black Bears are 78-63.  Despite the disadvantage of recruiting in New England among other things, Cosgrove has kept UMaine more than competitive every year.

“We have been an up and down program,” he said. “Greatness is described with the word consistency. The better word is rewarding, but until we become consistent I wouldn’t declare us great.”

As for a preview on his upcoming decision Cosgrove remained quiet during the season and said he has already met with athletic director Steve Abbot in concerns to his contract.

“There is a challenge here, and I’ve invested 20 years of my life meeting that challenge on a regular basis. Looking forward, I’m trying to find how big that challenge is going to be,” Cosgrove said.

Next season the CAA will welcome 9-2 Albany and 10-2 Stony Brook to an already difficult conference.

“There’s a point where you got to see the support is coming from the state or the university, and I know we are working towards that. These things don’t happen overnight,” Cosgrove said. “I just needed to see and feel and hear what the future is going to hold because there comes a point where it doesn’t just get done with hard work. There has to be the internal support.”

Black Bear fans are hopeful Cosgrove will return to lead a prospective successful season in 2013 and for years to come.