As Marcus Wasilewski goes, so go the Black Bears.
Maine quarterback Marcus Wasilewski/GoBlackBears.com
The senior quarterback has gone through the ropes up in Orono. He redshirted, played sparingly and even made some tackles on special teams. This time a year ago, he found himself in a quarterback duel with classmate John Ebeling. On paper, Ebeling should have had the edge. He's 6-foot-4 with mobility and overt athleticism. Wasilewski is 6-foot-1 and has one leg up – a very powerful arm.
Black Bears coach Jack Cosgrove went with the gunslinger and didn't regret it. Wasilewski had 2,354 yards to go with 21 touchdowns. No other quarterback threw a single pass for Maine last year. So far, Wasilewski is back on track, and had 209 passing yards and a touchdown against Norfolk State during Maine's 23-6 win. He also rushed for 54 yards.
Wasilewski is one of 20 seniors for Maine, a team that hasn't been given too much respect. In the preseason Colonial Athletic Association poll, the Black Bears were picked to finish eighth overall. Perhaps it's warranted, as the Black Bears went 5-6 last year and stumbled through their toughest Colonial Athletic Association games.
However, with a dismal 3-6 record heading into its final two games, Maine turned it on and outscored Rhode Island and Georgia State by a combined 106-13 to wrap up the year.
“As far as looking ahead to Maine, we've watched a lot of video on them over the summer and even over the last 24 hours. It's a well-coached football team - they played really, really hard,” UMass coach Charley Molnar said during the weekly MAC teleconference. “I'm sure this game is awfully important to them, and we're going have to bring our very, very best in order to win the game, there's no doubt about it.”
Wasilewski has a of couple receivers he likes to lean on, including senior Derrick Johnson and Justin Perillo, an All-CAA tight end who may be pushing for All-American honors by the end of the year. Perillo is a throwback tight end, and has the size to be a multifaceted weapon for Maine. The Black Bears also have a talented pair of juniors - Damarr Aultman and Art Williams – who each had more than 400 yards receiving last year.
Zedric Joseph was supposed to be Maine's load-bearing back this year, but during the Norfolk State game only had 49 yards on 12 carries. He split time with Rickey Stevens, an one-cut back with almost the same frame.
While Maine is typically a small-chunk-at-a-time team, against Norfolk State the Black Bears had an 85-yard touchdown play to gain momentum. Molnar indicated that UMass has to disrupt Maine in order to slow it down.
“As far as their ability to control the football, I think we are going have to make some turnovers, more than we did this past game, in order to upset their rhythm,” he said.
Maine's offensive weakness is on the line where it has three new faces getting some snaps - left tackle Tyler Patterson, center Bruce Johnson and right guard Daniel Carriker. Norfolk State did a decent job exposing the Black Bears up front and had six tackles for loss to go with two quarterback hurries and a sack.
Against teams with bigger, veteran defensive fronts, Maine may have trouble competing at the point of attack.
The Black Bears had one of the better defenses at the FCS level in 2012 and brings back star defensive end Mike Cole. The senior had 20 tackles last year and picked up seven sacks before tearing his quad during the fifth game of the season. Cole is the heart and soul of Maine's defensive line, and with a solid final campaign, he could take home Maine's career sack record (28).
Cole plays well out of Maine's 3-4 set, and in the Black Bears' opener against Norfolk State he picked up his first sack of the year. While Cole's return was big news, Maine's top performer was Cabrinni Goncalves, a roving linebacker who had 13 tackles and two sacks in the opener.
Goncalves is one of several linebackers looking to fill in for Donte Dennis, who as a senior in 2012 had a team-high 86 tackles. Axel Ofori, a team captain during the Norfolk State game, is another linebacker to keep an eye on.
Maine is pretty good up front with junior Matt Wilson and sophomore end Trevor Bates joining Cole. Bates has a little extra athleticism and played linebacker for the Black Bears during the 2012 campaign. Jon Louis, a junior transfer from UConn, will provide some depth on the edges.
Last year, Maine prided itself on its secondary and was No. 10 in the Football Championship Subdivision in pass-efficiency defense (107.72). It also allowed only 174.3 yards per game through the air.
This season should bring more of the same, as the Black Bears return senior cornerback Kendall James, junior strong safety Khari Al-Mateen and senior free safety Jamal Clay.
On special teams, Maine returns sophomore kicker Sean Decloux (7-10 on field goals) and junior punter Jeff Ondish (41.0 yards per punt). Ondish may be one of the best punters in the CAA this year.
As a whole, the Black Bears bring back a lot of veteran leadership, and a number of guys are already pretty comfortable is Cosgrove's system. Maine's weakness, however, is that it lacks size and depth on both the offensive and defensive lines, which can be exposed against stout teams. While weight isn't everything, Maine has only two true 300 pounders with a few teetering in the 290 range.
Compare that with the likes of Wisconsin, which has 12 guys over three bills – seven weigh 320 pounds or more.