Black Bears Football: Pride, Disappointment, and Wildcats

It’s been very well documented by Fill The Steins, and just about everyone else that covers UMaine football, that this year’s team far exceeded expectations.  After being voted to finish 8th in the CAA by the coaches in the conference’s preseason poll, the Black Bears went on to finish the regular season 5th…in the country.  Along the way, Maine won the CAA and only lost one game to an FCS opponent.  As luck (and the NCAA FCS playoff draw) would have it, Maine had their opportunity to avenge that loss, as they hosted UNH in the first home playoff game in the program’s history.

By now, we all know the Wildcats downed the Black Bears 41-27 and, quite frankly, outplayed them in a way that the above scoreline fails to properly illustrate.  Various post mortems on social media and other outlets have contended that we, as supporters of the football program, should be happy with the season, which was Maine’s first with 10 wins since 2002.  Others commentators have written that, after a relatively dominant season, we should be disappointed with the Black Bears’ inability to figure out the Wildcats and the abrupt ending to what we hoped would be a deep playoff run.  But, you know what?  It’s okay to feel both.

This was, indeed, a historic season for Maine football.  By any measure at any level of college football, a 10-win season is a success.  Looking at a 10-win season through the prism of the aforementioned low preseason expectations, the season looks even more successful.  Maine’s only two regular season losses were at Northwestern, who, at the time, was ranked in the FBS top 25, and at UNH in what was, despite being a longstanding rivalry, a game with little-to-no postseason implications for the Black Bears.  Aside from those two defeats, Maine navigated the rest of their season somewhere between efficiently and downright dominantly, racking up victory after victory in a variety of ways.

But there’s still that elephant, or should we say Wildcat, in the room…the University of New Hampshire.  It’s not just that the Black Bears lost twice to UNH this season, it’s the way they lost, particularly on Saturday.  Maine’s third down defense was poor; their third down offense, worse.  Aside from a meaningless late touchdown, star tight end Justin Perillo was virtually invisible.  Quarterback Marcus Wasilewski, whose accuracy and decision-making was his calling card throughout the regular season, could never establish a vertical passing game.  Most frustrating of all, to describe Maine’s tackling as atrocious would be kind.  Given how dominant Maine’s defense appeared at times this season, it was as though their ability to wrap up UNH’s skills players disappeared with the autumn weather.

In spite of all Maine’s miscues, they still had me believing they would come through on my prediction and win the game when they put together an impressive touchdown drive at the end of first half to send them in to the locker room trailing by only 3 points.  It was, however, UNH’s conversion on 3rd and 13 early in the 4th quarter, and the subsequent touchdown six plays later, that put the dagger through the Black Bears’ hearts once and for all.  Even Coach Cosgrove conceded to the Bangor Daily News that play was a backbreaker, not only on the game, but on the team’s postseason hopes.

Make no mistake, those postseason hopes were very, very real.  With a victory Saturday, Maine would’ve advanced to the FCS quarterfinals for the second time in three years and would’ve had the opportunity to potentially host another playoff game.  The fact that those postseason hopes were so real is why losing hurts so much. 

At the end of the day, it’s hard to believe this team achieved as much as it did.  It’s hard to believe a season that began so modestly could end so listlessly.  It’s also hard to simultaneously feel both pride and disappointment, but that’s exactly how I feel.  And that’s okay.  So as I look back on the 2013 University of Maine football season, I choose to fill the steins to expectations exceeded, promise unfulfilled, and the knowledge that, like in all sports, there’s always next year.

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