Commentary: Winning and Losing

The University of Maine football team is doing exactly what sophomore defensive end Trevor Bates told Fill The Steins they would do this year: surprise people and exceed expectations.  Despite being picked to finish 8th in the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA), the Black Bears have started their 2013 campaign with a 3-1 record.  In those first four games, Maine outscored their opposition by a combined total of 103-87 and defeated UMass, a Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) school, on the road at Gillette Stadium.  Perhaps the Black Bears’ most important and most impressive effort, however, came in defeat. 

The scene was Evanston, Ill., just outside of Chicago.  The date was Saturday September 21.  The opponent was Northwestern University.  The score was 35-21.  The winner was not Maine.

Usually I don’t buy in to the whole “moral victory” argument.  I tend to fall into the school of thought that there are no moral victories.  There are only victories…and defeats.  And, yes, Maine was defeated on the scoreboard last Saturday.  But this particular game against this particular opponent might just be the exception that proves the “no moral victories” rule.

Maine entered the Northwestern game as the decided underdog.  They were the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) school playing a road game against the 16th (or 18th, depending on which poll you believe) ranked FBS team in the country.  The game was being broadcast nationally on the Big Ten Network (yes, the Big Ten is that dominant of a presence in collegiate athletics that they warrant their own network) as a showcase game for the clearly-superior Wildcats to strut their stuff before they moved into their daunting Big Ten conference schedule. 

The game did not start well for the Black Bears.  After a poor first offensive drive for Maine, Northwestern drove down the field with relative ease, capping the drive with a quick touchdown to go up 7-0.  It looked like we were headed for another FBS rout of an FCS school, like we’d seen earlier in the day with dominant performances by Ohio State and Louisville against inferior competition.

But then a funny thing happened on the way to the final score.  Maine fought.  Maine scrapped.  Maine showed toughness.  Most importantly of all, Maine overcame adversity. 

Early in the game, adversity was one missed and one blocked field goal.  On either side of halftime, adversity was two interceptions from quarterback Marcus Wasilewski returned by the Northwestern defense for touchdowns.  Late in the game, adversity was Wasilewski succumbing to one too many big hits and having to come out of the game, first for a series, and later for good. 

Knowing nothing more about the game than what’s summarized in the paragraph above, one could easily, and understandably, assume Maine was the victim of an Ohio State-esque 76-0 thumping.  But they weren’t.  The final score was just 35-21.  In fact, the second half score was 21-21.  Maine was able to overcome all this adversity – a road game against a top-25 ranked FBS opponent, two pick-sixes, an injury to their starting quarterback – to put up a respectable scoreline.  That tells me more about the character, heart, and commitment of the team than anything I saw in the first three games of the season, all of which were victories.

Saturday’s game against Northwestern was a victory, too.  It was, in fact, a moral victory.  It takes a lot for me to write that.  But, then again, I saw a lot from the UMaine football team last Saturday.  This weekend, the Black Bears hit the road again to face conference rival Richmond, the 20th ranked FCS team in the country, in their CAA opener.  Based on what I saw last Saturday, I’m expecting a victory…a scoreboard victory.

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