Things weren’t looking good for Maine in mid-October. The Black Bears owned a 2-5 overall record and hadn’t won a game against a Colonial Athletic Association opponent.
Making matters worse was the fact that Maine had also lost starting quarterback Chris Ferguson to a season-ending foot injury during a 24-17 loss to Richmond on Oct. 12. Any talk of postseason play seemed far-fetched.
Things have certainly changed since then, however. The Black Bears (5-5, 3-3 CAA) have won three games in a row -- victories over William & Mary, Albany and Elon -- and have put themselves in the middle of the FCS playoff picture entering Saturday’s home game against Rhode Island (2-8, 0-6)
“We’re trying to take that championship mentality every week, and we believe we can control everything in front of us so right now we’re focused on Rhode Island and going 1-0 again,” Maine coach Nick Charlton said.
What allowed Maine to save its season? Here are two of the contributing factors: True freshman quarterback Joe Fagnano has performed better than anyone could have reasonably expected, and the defense re-discovered its big-play ability.
The Black Bears have recorded 12 sacks, 18 tackles for loss and forced seven turnovers during their three-game winning streak. Defensive lineman Kayon Whitaker has 9.5 tackles for loss (5.5 sacks) during that three-game stretch.
“The confidence is increasing (on defense) and we’re playing with a lot of energy right now,” Charlton said. “When you have success and the momentum starts to build it builds on itself, and it’s a game that’s about momentum.
“I think our guys are increasing their confidence every week and we have a lot of younger guys playing there on the back end and on the perimeter, and they’re playing very well right now. At this point they’ve played a lot of football. At this point we’re at a different place than we were earlier in the year. It’s been a lot of fun to watch. It’s been really been great creating the turnovers and there’s been a lot of energy coming that way.”
Fagnano, who made his first collegiate start in a 59-44 loss to Liberty, has passed for at least 249 yards and two or more touchdowns in each of his four starts. He was named the CAA’s Co-Rookie of the Week after he completed 20 of 29 passes for 320 yards and two TDs during last Saturday’s 31-17 victory over Elon.
“They’re a good football team and they’re red-hot right now,” Elon coach Tony Trisciani said when he was asked about Maine. “They have a quarterback who’s really efficient and he can run -- and they have weapons downfield.”
Despited limited playing time, Fagnano has thrown the three longest touchdown passes in the program’s history (90, 88 and 87 yards).
“You never know with true freshmen,” Charlton said. “It’s always hard to tell. When we saw him in camp he was very poised back there. He kept getting better every day. We just felt very confident and comfortable with him back there. I couldn’t have predicted, necessarily, the production, but he really rises to every challenge. When he makes a mistake he fixes it. I just think he’s a very talented, very poised quarterback that takes care of the football. Very proud of what he’s done so far, but he’s gotta keep going.”
If Maine beats Rhode Island and then gets past rival New Hampshire on the road the following weekend, the Black Bears will finish 7-5 overall. Their resume looks better when you consider that two of the team’s losses came against FBS opponents. At 5-3 in the conference, the Black Bears would likely finish no lower than third in the CAA regular season standings.
If New Hampshire is able to beat Albany on the road Saturday, it’s possible the New Hampshire-Maine contest could be a de facto playoff game.
Although Rhode Island is the only CAA team that hasn’t won a conference game, Charlton said he’s confident his team will be focused Saturday and will stay with the one-game-at-a-time mentality it’s had the last three weeks.
“I don’t think anybody is looking ahead to that (the New Hampshire game) at all,” Charlton said. “I don’t get a sense of that. We’re a veteran group of guys. I think our culture, where it’s at now, everybody has a very good understanding of what we need to do in order to accomplish our goals.”