The Maine football team just took flight for New Orleans and its first-ever meeting with Tulane on Saturday night. The Green Wave are another FBS opponent for the Black Bears, but a decided cut below what they faced in Boston College two weeks ago. I would never predict an FCS team to win such a matchup, but Maine certainly has a chance in this one. Here are five things I’ll be keeping an eye on, while my friend and former colleague Steve Solloway covers the game for the Maine Sunday Telegram:

1. If the strength of the Maine team is its defense, and the strength of that defense is a deep corps of linebackers, then why was Sterling Sheffield the only true freshman to see action at BC? Probably because of how impressive the rookie has been this summer. Sheffield will get his reps again Saturday, on special teams and at linebacker. And that’s not a bad thing. Christophe Mulumba Tshimanga is out with a bruised leg, leaving a sizable hole in the middle. John McCabe is a steady senior, and will help plug that gap. Outside linebackers Randy Samuels and Austin Brown will step over as well. At the rover spot, Cabrinni Goncalves is likely to see his snaps limited by the need to play him as a backup tailback. Benjamin Davis is an up-and-comer behind him. And Maine is so strong at linebacker that Zach Hume isn’t even listed on the two-deep, although he can wreak as much havoc in pass-rush situations as anyone. Which brings us back to Sheffield, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound wrecking ball in the making out of Mullica Hill, N.J. He made an impact on the opening kickoff against BC, knocking some unfortunate Eagle backwards. Later, he saw some duty at outside linebacker and was credited with Maine’s lone quarterback hurry in the game. He made one tackle. He’s shown some impressive athletic ability and a nose for being around the football all training camp, and Coach Jack Cosgrove told me this week Sheffield has earned a bigger workload by his performance. He’s also an “easy teach,” Cosgrove said, meaning he grasps concepts the first time. That’s reminiscent of the showing Nigel Beckford and Drew Belcher made as true freshmen last summer. So, even without Mulumba Tshimanga (who may return next week against Rhode Island) and with some question about how much Goncalves will play at linebacker, Maine should be fine.

2. Wide receiver Jaleel Reed sent quarterback Dan Collins an email last week. The subject line was simply “I’m Open.” Collins laughed as he relayed that story to me Tuesday, pointing to it as a sign of how confident his young receiving corps is. They call themselves “Top Flight.” That’s great, but the moniker hasn’t been earned yet. The receivers struggled to create separation against Boston College’s man-to-man coverage. There were dropped passes and moments when they seemed to shy from contact. The potential is certainly there. You can see it. Micah Wright, who led Maine with five catches for 28 yards, could become a star. But as a unit they made only nine receptions for 55 yards at BC. That’s not Top Flight. Tulane will play man-to-man again, and the Black Bear receivers must win those battles, show that they have the speed and the route-running precision to make a difference. This is a great test, and could decide whether Maine can keep the chains moving this time.

3. In addition to Mulumba Tshimanga, two other starters will sit out with injuries Saturday. Strong safety Darrius Hart (bruised knee) is a significant loss, because all of the other safeties for the Black Bears were getting their first action in that opener against BC. That would be Mozai Nelson, Sinmisola Demuren and Jason Matovu. Throw Spencer Carey into that mix as well this week. They held up well in Boston, combining for 6.5 tackles. Demuren was even in on a tackle for loss. Tulane hasn’t shown much this year, but the Green Wave can be dangerous in the passing game. The young safeties must not be the weak link. Meanwhile, tight end Jeremy Salmon will take the week off because of complications from his offseason shoulder surgery. He should be back next week. No other Black Bear tight end has caught a pass, however. Jason Simonovich figures to be the next man up. Sean Reuss could see some time there as well. True freshman Julian Dunn might make his debut at the H-back spot. If any of them can add a dimension to the offensive attack, that would be huge.

4. If this is a close game, and I suspect it will be, Maine kicker Sean Decloux could be the most valuable player. The senior is very good, although he doesn’t always get his chances. He nailed a 39-yarder at BC to give Maine an early lead and its only points. If the Black Bears can get close, he’s as sure of a thing as they have. Tulane, meanwhile, has sophomore Andrew DiRocco, who made a 37-yard field goal at Georgia Tech and is 2-for-2 on extra points. But it was senior Trevor Simms who attempted a 47-yard field goal against Georgia Tech, and he missed that. They list both on their depth chart. That tells me Decloux has the edge if it comes down to one kick to decide the game.

5. Finally, of course, it all comes down to Collins. He’s the quarterback, and he needs to get the offense moving. The junior showed his mettle against Boston College. The mistakes in the offense weren’t all his doing. He didn’t have a running game then, but gets Nigel Beckford back on Saturday. Still, not getting into the end zone ultimately falls on Collins’ shoulders. I wrote about him for the game preview in Saturday’s Press Herald, so I won’t dwell on it here. But, against a defense that has allowed 102 points in two games, there’s no more excuses to be made. Collins needs to show leadership and poise, and get Maine a touchdown or two in this one.

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