ORONO — A year ago, the University of Maine went into its final regular-season game with a chance to qualify for the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.

The Black Bears lost that game – and a shot at the playoffs – in the final seconds to rival New Hampshire. But Maine finished the season 6-5 in Joe Harasymiak’s first year as coach, a three-win improvement over the previous season.

Saturday, Maine will finish its season at home again, against nationally ranked and playoff-bound Stony Brook. This time the Black Bears (4-5) have no playoff hopes on the line. The best they can do is finish .500.

So should this be considered a step back for Harasymiak and the Black Bears? Certainly, in terms of wins, it was. And everyone associated with the program will tell you it was disappointing.

Led by 24 seniors, the Black Bears expected to contend not only for a playoff berth but a Colonial Athletic Association title.

“With the talent we have, we should have done better,” said Isaiah Brooks, a senior offensive lineman.

Maybe those expectations were unrealistic. This was, after all, a team that graduated three players who went on to play professional football: defensive lineman Pat Ricard with the Baltimore Ravens, and linebacker Christophe Mulumba Tshimanga and quarterback Dan Collins in the Canadian Football League. Those three were in the middle of every one of those six wins a year ago.

And the Black Bears were starting young players at several key positions, including quarterback and center.

Maine faltered this season because it couldn’t win games in the fourth quarter – and because it couldn’t beat the CAA’s most successful programs. Over the last two years, Maine is 0-6 against James Madison, New Hampshire and Villanova. That’s 60 percent of Maine’s losses in two years.

The Black Bears have had several failings this fall. Going into Saturday’s game, they lead the CAA in penalties (averaging 84.2 penalty yards per game) and are next-to-last in third-down conversions (28.9 percent).

They’ve made too many mistakes in critical moments: a pass interference penalty to keep an opponent’s drive going, an illegal-shift penalty to kill an offensive drive, a dropped pass or a missed tackle on third down, a fumble on a punt return, a missed field goal or extra point.

Maine lost to New Hampshire by a point in the opener. It trailed top-ranked James Madison by four entering the fourth quarter, was tied with Delaware entering the fourth quarter, and was tied with Massachusetts (a Football Bowl Subdivision team) in the third quarter after trailing by 17 in the first. The Black Bears lost all three of those games.

“As a team, we just didn’t step up in big moments,” said Najee Goode, a senior cornerback who battled injuries all year.

But this is a team that also did a lot of things well, and one that shows a lot of promise.

Its defense, spurred by a young group of interior linemen and linebackers, leads the CAA in opponents’ third-down conversion rate and is ranked fourth overall. Defensive linemen Charles Mitchell and Kayon Whitaker have been dominant at times. Redshirt freshmen linebackers Jaron Grayer and Deshawn Stevens have been impressive.

Sophomore running back Josh Mack leads the FCS in rushing yards per game (140.2) and is just 22 yards shy of the fourth-best rushing season in Maine history. Sophomore receiver/kick returner Earnest Edwards has become one of the most dangerous players in the CAA.

Redshirt freshman quarterback Chris Ferguson has struggled at times, but has also shown enough talent to indicate he could have a nice career. Ferguson has completed 152 of 284 passes (53.5 percent) for 1,808 yards and 14 touchdowns. He also has thrown 11 interceptions. When he’s played well, the Black Bears have succeeded. In the four wins, he has thrown 10 touchdown passes with no interceptions.

So was this season a step backward for the Black Bears?

No. Call it a sideways move. But they certainly need to take a step forward next year. And to do so, they must be more focused.

Harasymiak knows this and plans on re-evaluating everything he and his staff does to prepare their players – not just physically but mentally.

“We’ve got to come up with ideas on how to get us to execute in crucial situations,” he said.

The Black Bears begin a long offseason on Sunday. If Maine is to return to the playoffs any time soon, its young players have to take that next step next year. Harasymiak believes they will.

“They now know what it takes,” he said. “They have seen how the little things matter.”

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

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Twitter: MikeLowePPH