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Maine-Bryant football a clash of unbeatens

A victory over UMass at Gillette Stadium last Saturday got coach Jack Cosgrove and the Black Bears off to a fast start.

stephen savoia/associated press

A victory over UMass at Gillette Stadium last Saturday got coach Jack Cosgrove and the Black Bears off to a fast start.

Maine coach Jack Cosgrove called the interception a dumb play. Three straight completions, punctuated by a 48-yarder to tight end Justin Perillo, had Maine snapping the ball at the 5, first and goal.

Senior quarterback Marcus Wasilewski, trying to elude pressure in the pocket, had his throw picked off in the end zone.

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UMass had already parlayed a 65-yard kickoff return into a 7-0 cushion at Gillette Stadium last Saturday afternoon.

“I knew it was a mistake, a dumb play, but you are going to make mistakes,” said Wasilewski. “But the most important thing, put it behind you.”

And Wasilewski certainly did that for the rest of what was a very satisfying afternoon.

“After that play, he was truly a quarterback,” said Cosgrove, with the conviction of someone who played the position, and well.

“He settled down, he did not let it rattle him, he moved the chains, he was poised.”

With his 267 yards through the air, Wasilewski moved past his coach (Class of 1978) into ninth place in program history for passing yardage.

That poise helped pave the way for a 24-14 victory over UMass, the Black Bears’ former Yankee Conference/Colonial Athletic Association rival trying to make its way as a Football Bowl Subdivision entry. The victory, the program’s 500th, has Maine off to a 2-0 start for the first time in more than a decade entering Saturday’s home opener against fellow unbeaten Bryant (2-0) at Alfond Stadium.

“The home opener means a lot to us this year — we have a history of not playing as well at home as we have on the road,” said Wasilewski, a Kulpmont, Pa., native who completed 17 of his final 24 passes against the Minutemen. He also ripped off a 39-yard keeper for Maine’s final touchdown with 1:18 left in the third quarter.

Last fall, the 5-6 Black Bears won just one game in Orono while losing four.

This season, though, they may be headed on a different course, physically and mentally.

Maine manhandled UMass at the point of attack, nearly doubling up the Minutemen in total yards (514-265).

“A pleasant surprise,” said Cosgrove, noting that the Black Bears have worked three new starters into the offensive front.

And defensively, with 6-foot-2-inch, 250-pound senior end Mike Cole turned loose for the first time since being sidelined six games in 2012 with a knee injury, Maine has multiple playmakers.

What the genesis for the promising start?

Cosgrove and his quarterback point to the offseason.

“It goes back to the spring — we really had a great offseason, in the development phase of the football program,” said Cosgrove, now in his 21st season at the helm of his alma mater. “And in the summer, the players rallied around each other.”

Nearly 70 players summered/trained in Orono.

“That’s a hard gig, for that to happen here,” said Cosgrove, with an emphasis on here.

“We are not an FBS program. But it developed team chemistry.”

Wasilewski added, “It was only us, a few other students, a couple of athletes. We were together nonstop, in the weight room” and in the Mahaney Dome athletic center.

The commitment, according to Cosgrove, has allowed the younger players to advance at a faster clip. He cited a pair of linebackers, sophomore Cabrinni Goncalves and redshirt freshman Christophe Mulumba.

The safeties, senior Jamal Clay, the CAA’s Defensive Player of the Week for his play against UMass, and Khari Al-Mateen, have developed into a stellar duo. Cosgrove compared the pair to the tandem of alums Jerron McMillian, now starting for Packers in his second season, and Trevor Coston, who earned a tryout with the Lions.

The Black Bears bounced Bryant last September, 51-7, but Cosgrove emphasized, “We saw them at their worst. They have really improved.”

The Bulldogs were in the midst of an 0-6 start, their poor early play in part due to “an unbelievable run of injuries at key spots,” according to coach Marty Fine.

But they bounced back to win four of their last five games.

Fine, though, is not sure there has been a carryover, despite opening the season with wins against Holy Cross (17-16) and Assumption (34-7).

“We are much healthier, we have an identify, a style that fits out personnel, and we have a smart team,” said the coach, who in his 10 seasons has navigated the transition from Division 2, and the Northeast-10, to the FCS level and the Northeast Conference.

Cosgrove, with admiration, says Bryant is a “real physical, old-fashioned type of team, they just come at you,” noting three blocked punts against Assumption last week.

Wasilewski calls the Bulldogs “relentless.”

Fine, though, hopes his team is in it in the fourth quarter.

“I don’t know if we have enough ability,” he said, “but if they give us an opportunity . . .

“The reason they win games is that they do a lot of things right. Our defensive line will give us a chance.”

Craig Larson can be reached at clarson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeLars.
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