ORONO — Three games into the football season, the University of Maine’s defense was reeling.

The Black Bears, traditionally one of the strongest defensive teams in the Colonial Athletic Association, were giving up yards and big plays at a staggering pace. There were missed tackles and assignments, leading to some unsightly statistics and three consecutive losses.

Yet Maine would not be in its current position – contending for an NCAA playoff berth – without clutch plays by its defense. The Black Bears enter Saturday’s game at Alfond Stadium against rival New Hampshire with both teams at 6-4 overall, 5-2 in the CAA. The winner is likely to earn an at-large bid to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.

The Black Bears rank 11th of 12 CAA teams in pass defense (allowing 223.2 yards per game), eighth against the run (169.8), and 10th in total defense (393). But in each of Maine’s six victories – all by seven points or less – the defense has come up with a game-deciding play in the final two minutes.

“It is crazy,” said senior defensive end Pat Ricard. “I’ve played in 40-plus games since I’ve come here and this season has had the craziest endings. I just think that we’re a group that keeps fighting to the end.

“We live in the moment of those last drives and execute and cause turnovers.”

Maine Coach Joe Harasymiak said his defense is playing much better now than earlier in the season.

“The Black Hole mentality is that we’ll never quit, we’ll keep on grinding,” he said, invoking the nickname of Maine’s defense. “I think that’s what you’re seeing now, guys playing with more confidence and believing in the system.”

Christophe Mulumba Tshimanga, a senior linebacker, leads Maine with 86 tackles despite missing a game because of a concussion. He said the Black Bears learned from their early season mistakes and are now making the plays when needed.

“Sometimes you see the offense get yards and that’s normal, and you’re always going to allow big plays,” he said. “But we always find a way to make the big (defensive) play and save the game.

“Even if we don’t play our best, if you make the big play, you can forget everything else.”

For five consecutive weeks, Maine walked the tightrope of victory and defeat. Then, after its winning streak was snapped, it rebounded last week to beat Stony Brook.

Here’s how the Black Bears did it:

Oct. 1, Maine 35, Bryant 31: Safety DeAndre Scott intercepted a pass at the Bryant 46 with 1:48 remaining.

 Oct. 8, Maine 28, Delaware 21: Linebacker Austin Brown recovered a fumble and returned it 62 yards for a touchdown with 56 seconds left.

 Oct. 15, Maine 20, Albany 16: Cornerback Najee Goode knocked down a fourth-down pass from the Maine 34 with 1:43 remaining.

 Oct. 22, Maine 28, Rhode Island 21: Safety Jason Matovu intercepted a pass (that was tipped by linebacker Sterling Sheffield) in the end zone on the game’s final play.

Oct. 29, Maine 35, William & Mary 28: On second down from the Maine 30, Goode forced a fumble that Matovu recovered at the Maine 20 with 39 seconds remaining.

 Nov. 12, Maine 27, Stony Brook 21: Goode intercepted a pass at the Stony Brook 20 with 1:29 remaining.

Those frantic finishes even have some teammates on edge.

“It’s terrifying because it’s happened so many times,” said senior tight end Jeremy Salmon. “I feel like I’m going to have a heart attack at 21. It is very exciting.”

Not to the defense. Every member of the defense interviewed this week spoke of a sense of calm in the huddle before Stony Brook’s final drive.

“We were like, guys, we’ve been here before,'” said Ricard. “Let’s play fast and hard and execute and let it take care of itself.”

Maine had turned the ball over on downs at the Stony Brook 21. On first down, quarterback Pat Irwin dropped back to pass and Goode made a diving, rolling interception. “That was crazy,” said Ricard. “I got off my block and was rushing the quarterback and I saw the throw. Then, all of a sudden, Najee makes this one-handed rolling catch. I couldn’t believe it.”

Goode, who leads the team with six pass break-ups and three forced fumbles, said he simply reacted to the play.

“I tried to be aggressive on their receiver, because they really wanted to get him the ball a lot,” he said. “So I just pushed him, tried to funnel him into the linebackers and take him out of the play. Then I saw the back come out of the backfield and I jumped the pass. The quarterback made the throw, I made a play. It was pure instinct.”

Maine’s run defense has improved dramatically. After three games, the Black Bears were giving up 226.7 rushing yards per game – last in the CAA. Now, Maine is at 169.8 yards per game.

Ricard said communication among the defenders is better now. Harasymiak credits better tackling. And, Harasymiak added, Maine is getting outstanding individual efforts.

“Ultimately our best players are playing well,” he said. “The Najee Goodes, the Pat Ricards, the Darius Greenes, the Chris Mulumbas, they’re having quality games. And in a game like this (against New Hampshire) they have to step up again.”


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