ORONO – The football season starts tonight for the University of Maine. But make no mistake, all eyes will be on the finish.

The Black Bears host Albany, their most frustrating opponent from last season, at 7 p.m.

The Great Danes came back from a 16-0 halftime deficit to beat the Black Bears 20-16 in what serves as the best example of Maine’s struggles to close out games in 2009.

The focus this year is to reverse that trend.

“I think everyone here would agree it was an embarrassing way to go out and play,” said fullback Jared Turcotte, who will make his first start in 21 months after missing last season with an injury. “We didn’t finish well. This time we’ve got to start strong and finish even stronger.”

“This is the first game of the year for 2010. It’s going to set the bar for what we can do, what we can’t do. And we have some high expectations.”

The Maine football offices have been filled with players and coaches studying videotape of the Albany team, the Northeast Conference champion in 2007 and 2008. The NEC champion earns a bid to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs for the first time this year.

On the practice field, Maine has been working to develop a more well-rounded offense and more imposing defense.

“The beauty of the opener is you find out a lot about your football team,” said Maine Coach Jack Cosgrove. “Albany took a game away from us last year in the fourth quarter. They made plays and it led to us changing some things.”

The Great Danes return sophomore tailback Andrew Smith (329 rushing yards) and four of five offensive linemen, but they will start a new quarterback, Dan Di Lella, a 6-foot-5, 225-pound junior.

“It’s a young quarterback so we plan to really harass him and make life difficult,” said Maine linebacker Mark Masterson. “We want to get him into third-and-long situations.”

Last time around, Albany scored the go-ahead touchdown with just over two minutes to play.

“We’re really excited to get another chance against them,” said free safety Trevor Coston. “That game hurt our season.

“We’re looking at this game as a statement game. We’re really excited to play.”

Albany returns its defensive front four, but has a new linebacking corps and some young players in the secondary.

Quarterback Warren Smith, named Maine’s starter on Sunday, was still alternating series with Mike Brusko against Albany last year. He was learning the offense and getting his feet wet at the FCS level.

He started the next game at Syracuse and was Maine’s starter until injuring his foot late in the season.

Smith threw for 1,695 yards, completing 159 of 260 passes for 12 touchdowns. He also had 13 interceptions.

“In my second season as a quarterback here I feel a lot more confident,” said Smith. “The game is a lot slower. I feel more in control.”

The focus on offense is to ignite the running game again after leading the conference in passing last year.

But it will also be to keep the defense off the field.

“We turned the ball over too much last year,” said Smith. “We had trouble finishing ballgames. I feel like we can do the same thing against Albany (from the first half), but finish (this time).”

Turcotte said he’s been studying game tape since Saturday.

“It’s a good feeling to finally know I can play in a game, a good feeling,” said Turcotte.

Cosgrove said nothing beats having a healthy lineup and getting the season going.

“We feel healthy and that’s exciting,” said Cosgrove. “That first game is such a definer of who you are.

“You move from there. You go on to that next game, and for us it’s Monmouth.”

Staff Writer Jenn Menendez can be contacted at 791-6426 or at:

[email protected]