For years, the University of Maine’s defense – nicknamed “The Black Hole” – has been the source of the team’s pride.

Maine may have struggled at times offensively, but the defense could always be counted on to either keep a game close or close out a victory.

This year, however, it’s the defense that is struggling. And that’s put the Black Bears teetering on the fringe of the playoffs.

Maine’s defense is giving up an average of 412 yards (ranked 11th in the 12-team Colonial Athletic Association) and 27 points (10th). Much of that falls on the pass defense, which is also ranked 11th and allows an average of 240.6 yards per game.

The defense must take a page from the past if the Black Bears (5-4, 4-2 in the CAA) are going to have a chance of winning their last two games – at Stony Brook (5-4, 4-2) on Saturday and at home against New Hampshire (6-3, 5-1) on Nov. 19 – and getting into the NCAA playoffs. And that means making the plays that they’ve been missing lately.

Maine gave up 326 passing yards in Saturday’s 26-7 loss to Villanova that snapped a five-game winning streak, allowing eight passes of 15 yards or more. That followed a trend that saw the Black Bears give up 285 yards (eight passes of 15-plus yards) in a 35-28 win at William & Mary and 347 yards (11 passes of 15-plus yards) in a 28-21 win at Rhode Island.

“There have been a lot of one-on-one battles lately where we’re just not making the plays,” said Maine Coach Joe Harasymiak. “Being in position is only half the battle. We’ve got to come down with the ball or at least break it up. Guys have got to make plays.”

He pointed to the two touchdown catches by Villanova tight end Ryan Bell. On the first, a throwback to the right corner, Maine safety Sinmisola Demuren fell as he was covering Bell, leaving him open to make the catch. On the second, cornerback Najee Goode was right with Bell, who made a leaping catch at the back of the end zone – getting his foot down inches inside the end line – for the touchdown.

“Simi was all over him, did a great job with his eyes, great job in coverage, and fell,” said Harasymiak. “Najee was all over the kid but takes a peek with his eyes. That’s undisciplined, allows some separation and allows the kid to make a play.”

Perhaps it was unrealistic to expect this year’s defense to dominate as past Maine defenses have. Maine’s secondary is experienced, but still young. And up front Maine had to replace graduated defensive ends Trevor Bates and Mike Kozlakowski, who combined for 12 of the team’s 32 sacks. But Maine players and coaches have high expectations.

Even last year, when Maine was 3-8, the Black Bears were ranked third overall in the CAA (316.8 yards) and second against the run (110.8). But the pass defense – which was ranked as high as first in 2013 (176.9) and second in 2014 (172.2) – showed signs of slipping in 2015. Maine’s pass defense was ranked ninth in the CAA last year, allowing 206 yards per game.

Maine continues to play its aggressive pass coverage, with the corners pressing opposing receivers at the line in one-on-one coverage. But, Harasymiak noted, it’s not that the cornerbacks are getting beat all the time. Much of the damage has come in the seams, along the hashmarks, as opposing teams find holes between Maine’s linebackers and safeties.

“It’s all about eye discipline,” said Harasymiak. “In terms of reading your keys, if your eyes are out of place, as a safety, that can turn bad quickly. Offensively, defensively, when we got in trouble it was the eyes.

“We were undisciplined. And that’s what beat us.”

Corey Hetherman, Maine’s defensive coordinator, said the players start working on their “eye discipline” in the film room, looking over their key responsibilities on each play, and carrying that over to practice. “A couple of times their guys came free when we weren’t locking onto our keys and seeing certain things,” he said.

Maine took away Villanova’s running game, which averages over 210 yards per game and was held to 94, but the Wildcats won, said Villanova Xoach Andy Talley, because sophomore quarterback Zach Bednarczyk “was pin-point accurate and hit everyone in stride.”

One way to take pressure off the secondary is to pressure the quarterback. But the Black Bears have only 13 sacks, 11th in the CAA. They had 32 last year (second), 26 in 2014, 30 in 2013.

“The opportunities are there,” said Hetherman. “We’re just missing.”

Now would be a good time to start making the plays. As Harasymiak said, “Your big-time players step up in big-time games.”

And the games are all big-time now.

FRESHMAN EARNEST EDWARDS was named CAA special teams player of the week for his 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Villanova. That was Maine’s longest return for a score since 2004 when Arel Gordon also had a 97-yard kick-off return.

Edwards finished with 232 yards in offense: 152 on kickoff returns, 54 receiving yards and 26 rushing yards.

“Earnest is extremely talented with the ball in his hands,” said Harasymiak. “We’ve got to try to continue to work him into the offense and get him the ball in space … He gives us a chance to score every time he touches the ball.”