Three games into their season, the Maine Black Bears are 1-2 and desperate to right the ship this weekend after dropping their home opener at Alfond Stadium to the University of Albany. Last season's edition of Maine football came down to the Main Line and manhandled the inexperienced and undersized Wildcats, 41-25, that team finished the season in the quarterfinals of the FCS tournament and earned a top-8 ranking in the nation.
This year's Maine team returns 14 starters from last season, including five pre-season All-CAA selections (Michael Cole, DL; Justin Perillo, TE; Chris Howley and Josh Spearin, OL; and Maurice McDonald, WR). They still suffered some major losses from last year, but there was optimism around the program after last season's success.
They weren't expected to win their opener at Boston College, but losing it 34-3 was also not in their plans for the season. Their offense struggled to put up points against the 48th-ranked scoring defense in FBS. Their revenge came against Northeastern Conference minnows, Bryant University, rated near the bottom of Division 1 college football, just barely above Savannah State (who managed to not be the worst program despite getting blown up and out by two FBS programs) according to Sagarin.
Albany, meanwhile, is a pretty good FCS program, which leaves Maine football as a giant question-mark so far in 2012. They haven't beaten anyone good, but they don't have any terrible losses. Are they better than Villanova?
Maine has a relatively balanced offense, averaging 182 rushing yards per game and 209 passing yards. Things trended a bit more toward the passing game last weekend, however, as the Black Bears looked to come back from a 9-0 halftime deficit, passing for 264 yards to just 135 on the ground. Rickey Stevens is their lead runner, averaging 6.8 yards per carry and 83.7 per game. David Hood is close behind with 83 yards per game.
Stevens was given the starting job last week and gained 83 yards on 20 carries. Hood started the first two games, but had trouble holding on to the ball, losing two fumbles.
Quarterback Marcus Wasilewski has completed around 58.2% of his passes through three games, with three touchdowns and three interceptions. Most of those receptions were hauled in by Maurice McDonald, a returning All-Conference player, who has 22 catches for 180 yards. Derrick Johnson is really the team's playmaker on offense, however, picking up 218 yards and 2 touchdowns on just 15 receptions so far this season.
Maine has a talented, but mistake-prone offense, that averages about two turnovers per game, as well as 8 penalties for an average loss of 76.3 yards per contest.
Defensively, they have held opponents to 23.7 points per game (45th ranked), inflated slightly by the score of their FBS season opener, and have allowed 316 yards of total offense (24th ranked total defense). Defensively, they have been statistically comparable to Villanova, coming in 70th against the run and 14th against the pass; Villanova's defense ranks 72nd and 3rd respectively in those categories, but the 'Cats rank 25th in scoring defense this season.
On Saturday, expect it to be 59 degrees with a near certainty of all-day rain for the game. Sloppy conditions could limit the passing game for both teams, which won't help Villanova's defense. Teams have picked up more yardage and made more big plays against the 'Cats through big plays on the ground than they have with their passing games this season.
It may also hold back a Villanova passing game that seemed to be just getting started last weekend.
Norman White remains injured for the Wildcats -- he's playing, but the coaches are limiting his use on running plays. Weather could further limit him if the running game becomes the focal point in Orono. Instead the 'Cats may go to a tandem of Joe Price and Mike Burke, both big, strong possession receivers who show some toughness blocking in the running game.
In that event, Villanova will be hoping to have Austin Medley fully recovered from his hamstring injury and in pads for the game. Medley was the Wildcats' leading rusher through the first three games, though Kevin Monangai managed well on his own against the Penn defense last week. Adding another option to the rushing attack will be important though if the Wildcats' air attack is grounded this week.
There are worse fates than playing a football game in the rain, however (it's still better than snow), and quarterback John Robertson insisted that the rain didn't affect his passing stats against Fordham in the team's home opener.
The 'Cats got out to a fast start last weekend and will look to do so again. They have rushed for over 200 yards in each game so far, and much of that has come through second-half efforts.
Penalties have been the offense's biggest area for improvement once Robertson showed that he could take advantage of his receivers when opposing defenses beg for him to throw the ball. The 'Cats have committed 27 penalties (6.8 per game) for a loss of 231 yards (57.8 per game) so far. Six of those penalties came last week against the Penn Quakers, costing the 'Cats 52 yards.
"We stayed away from the interceptions and we haven't fumbled, so I'm happy that we won the turnover battle," Talley said after that game. "We lost the turnover battle against Temple and the score got out of hand, so they seem to be in that mode, but they're still making penalties which is very frustrating but I hope that improves."
Villanova football has always had struggles on long road trips to New England and this trip to Maine will similarly be a challenge. The Black Bears will come into this game hungry for a home victory and they will be prepared to play in the New England weather.
The Sagarin ratings predict a Villanova advantage of less than a point in this game -- effectively a pick 'em (even if last season's results are still factored in). A win this weekend for the Wildcats puts them into a strong position going forward, they would have four victories in hand and need just three more out of the six remaining to get there, with three home games remaining. A loss wouldn't be the end of the season either, but it would signal that this team needs more work to get back to the position of CAA and FCS power-program that it held prior to last season.