The Maine football team steps away from conference play Saturday to host Yale for the first time in its homecoming game. It’s the first of a home-and-home series as the Black Bears head to New Haven in two years. Non-conference games against FCS teams that are a bus ride away are a priority for Maine Coach Jack Cosgrove, who told me he’s been targeting Ivy League and Patriot League schools for that reason. To land Yale is an exciting coup, though, given the school’s prominence in U.S. intellectual history and even, going way back, in college football annals. It should be an exciting matchup. Here’s what I’ll be most interested to watch:

1. Nigel Beckford and his revolving cast of backups. The Maine tailback is averaging only 14 carries per game and leads the team with 265 rushing yards. That relatively light workload is a sign of what, exactly? The fact that Cosgrove doesn’t fully trust the sophomore? The fear of injury? That the backups have been better than believed? Probably all of that. So Darian Davis-Ray got his day in the sun before an ankle injury. Sacoy Malone then showed flashes of competence before pulling a hamstring. Last week, it was true freshman Joe Fitzpatrick (63 yards) and Darius Benders (28) who filled in capably. I assume that’s the duo that will get the call again tomorrow, but we’re almost at the point where predicting the distribution of carries in a Black Bears game is as difficult as doing so with a Bill Belichick-coached Patriots team. Best just to shut up and watch. So I will.

2. Maine’s secondary had its best showing of the season last week in a 39-7 win at Albany. The Black Bears jumped to a 20-0 lead, essentially forcing the Great Danes to pass. Yet Albany completed only 17-of-30 for 167 yards and a touchdown. There were two interceptions, but both by Maine linebackers (off topic, but is true freshman Sterling Sheffield setting a high bar for himself, or what?). Yale has a senior quarterback in Morgan Roberts, who was second team all-Ivy League last year. He likes to fling it, attempting 40 passes or more in 10 of his 14 starts the past two years. Even when he’s more discriminating, he can have games like last year’s against Cornell, when he was a mere 26-of-30 for 312 yards and five touchdowns. The point being, he will be a great test for the Black Bear safeties, who are being forced to come of age this fall. It’s easy to see how this matchup could determine the outcome.

3. Yale has four coaches who are very familiar with recent inner workings of the Black Bears. Defensive coordinator Steve Vashel coached here from 2009-11; defensive line coach Jordan Stevens played at Maine, was a team captain in 2009, and then coached its D-line for two years; passing game coordinator/quarterbacks coach Kevin Cahill coached at Maine from 2008-11; and director of operations Chris Gennaro played for the Black Bears in those same four seasons. Cosgrove said Tuesday that much of what he was seeing on film from the Bulldogs looked similar to what Maine does. The team that Yale reminds Maine most of is … Maine. Does that give one side an edge, or is it a wash? It will be the game within the game tomorrow.

4. How many Yale fans make their way north for this game? The Bulldogs, as Maine did, are playing their fourth road game out of their first five contests. Their lone home game, at the historic Yale Bowl, drew 15,000+. Is it a fan base that travels well? Will they all be wearing tweed and reading hard-cover books? Does their tailgating involve centrifuges rather than grills? Maine is 4-32-1 all-time against Ivy League schools, but hasn’t played one in 17 years. As a fan of both football and smart people, I’ll be curious to see if the visiting crowd carries a different vibe than a typical game. Or if it’s much of a visiting crowd at all.

5. Finally, the “throwback” uniforms that Maine will wear. I got an early glimpse of them when I happened to be at a summer practice where university President Susan Hunter greeted the team and the seniors ducked behind the bleachers to come out wearing the jerseys that we will see tomorrow. I’m probably in the minority, but I actually liked them. Regardless, the mere existence of the uniforms shows that Maine may not be so far behind the times. Throwbacks are all the rage, in a variety of sports at both the pro and college level. And I can tell that the Black Bears players, like most young athletes these days, are excited about wearing something a little different. It will have no bearing on the outcome of the game, of course, but it will add something to the nostalgic feel of what sets up to be a unique gameday atmosphere in Orono. I wrote more about this for my game preview in Saturday’s Press Herald.