Maine’s Joe Fitzpatrick drags New Hampshire defenders for extra yardage during last week’s season opener in Orono. (Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald)
The University of Maine football players were feeling good when they came back to practice earlier this week. And why not?
The Black Bears opened the season with a 35-7 thumping of rival New Hampshire, placed the Brice-Cowell musket above the entrance to their locker room for the first time since 2010 and earned a Top 25 ranking in both Football Championship Subdivision national polls.
Coach Joe Harasymiak quickly saw to it that his players realized the season was just beginning.
“I had to get after them on Tuesday, we were a little sloppy, had a hangover,” Harasymiak said Thursday. “Wednesday was better. (Thursday) was good, too. Everything we’ve experienced — the convincing win over New Hampshire, coming in nationally ranked — these guys haven’t been through it before. So I fed them some humble pie on Tuesday and got after them a bit.
“We still have a long way to go.”
That’s when Maine (1-0, 22nd in the STATS poll, 25th in the AFCA Coaches poll) travels to Bowling Green, Kentucky, to play Western Kentucky University, a Football Bowl Subdivision team that lost its opener 34-3 at No. 4 Wisconsin.
“This will be an extremely challenging game for us,” said Harasymiak. “You’ve got to be careful looking at their score because they were playing Wisconsin and doing some good things. It will take a tremendous team effort from us again.”
Injuries could be a factor for Maine. Linebacker Jaron Grayer, who led Maine in tackles a year ago with 79, will miss this game — and most likely another — as he recovers from a knee injury suffered in the second quarter last week. Harasymiak said an MRI revealed “no ACL tear, which is really good news.”
Linebacker Taji Lowe and center Chris Mulvey will be game-time decisions, according to Harasymiak. Lowe got poked in the eye and his vision is still not right. Mulvey ripped his right hand open on a helmet. He had stitches but since he makes snaps with his right hand, he could be out for the game.
If Mulvey can’t play, freshman Michael Gerace, of Bel Air, Maryland, will start. He played the second half last week against UNH. At linebacker, Harasymiak said sophomore Owen Elliott of Saco (Thornton Academy) and freshman Adrian Otero, of Hazelton, Pennsylvania, will take the spots of Grayer and Lowe.
Senior linebacker Sterling Sheffield, who was co-Colonial Athletic Association defensive player of the week after getting two sacks and three tackles for a loss against UNH, said he’s confident Elliott and Otero can fill the void.
“Everybody who goes onto the field, I am comfortable with, the whole team is comfortable with,” he said. “We’re excited to have them part of (the defense). We’re not expecting anything less this week.”
Maine will be looking for its third win all time against FBS schools. The Black Bears defeated Mississippi State 9-7 in 2007 and Massachusetts 24-14 in 2013. Overall, Maine is 2-16 against FBS schools, larger Division I schools with bigger budgets, rosters and more scholarship players.
Maine is playing Western Kentucky for the first time. After a bye week, the Black Bears play at Central Michigan, another FBS school. Maine also will play two FBS schools next year: Georgia Southern and Liberty University.
FBS football programs provide a financial boost for schools like Maine. The Black Bears will receive $300,000 from Western Kentucky and $400,000 from Central Michigan.
While Harasymiak said playing two FBS schools each year presents a challenge, he added “this is something this program has to do.”
The players don’t seem to mind.
“It’s exciting,” Sheffield said. “We want to show that we’re here and we belong. And the only way to do that is to play better competition. Playing the FBS schools will help us understand how great we can be.”
Sophomore quarterback Chris Ferguson, coming off an impressive 21-of-31 performance for 199 yards and two touchdowns, said these games are great measuring sticks.
“We get jacked up,” he said. “Going into an FBS stadium, their home opener, it’s everything we want … I like traveling, staying in a hotel, being with the guys who matter the most right now except for your family. It’s important. It’s fun.”