Last year the University of Maine led Football Championship Subdivision teams in run defense. This season has been a different story. The Black Bears are allowing 5.5 yards per carry. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

For the University of Maine football team, Saturday’s nonconference game at Colgate could be all about the run.

The Black Bears (1-2, 0-1 Colonial Athletic Association) are going against a defense that allows 305.3 rushing yards per game, which might be just the thing for an offense that prides itself on the run but is averaging only 90.3 yards per game.

More importantly, this game will give Maine a chance to re-establish its rush defense. A year ago there was none better. Maine gave up just 79.2 rushing yards per game, just 2.4 per carry.

This year? Maine is allowing 223.3 rushing yards per game, 5.5 per carry.

“It’s been mostly mental errors,” said senior defensive end Kayon Whitaker, one of the team’s four captains. “And we have to make the plays one-on-one. That’s something we haven’t been doing. It’s most definitely something we can fix.”

Injuries have been an issue. Middle linebacker Deshawn Stevens was lost for the season in the opener when he suffered a torn Achilles tendon in his right leg. Outside linebacker Jaron Grayer has a left shoulder injury that forced him out of the last two games. He’ll be a game-time decision against Colgate (0-3), which is averaging just 84 rushing yards per game.

But there are other concerns.

Defensive coordinator Mike Ryan said tackling needs to improve, citing several missed tackles in last week’s 45-23 home loss to Towson.

And, Ryan said, teams are attacking Maine differently this year, going away from the middle of the defense, anchored by linemen Charles Mitchell, Alejandro Oregon and linebacker Taji Lowe, and running more to the outside, forcing cornerbacks and safeties to make the plays.

“They’re going to try to take away our strength,” said Ryan. “We’ve got to be a little better there. And we’re working on our tackling this week. We’ve got guys in the right spot. They’ve just got to make the play.”

Part of the problem is the Black Bears aren’t getting sacks or many tackles for a loss. Last year they had 47 sacks and 117 tackles for a loss, led by Stevens and Sterling Sheffield (now on the practice squad of the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League). They combined for 35 tackles for a loss and 18.5 sacks.

This year Maine has one sack and 10 tackles for a loss.

“There’s no doubt we’ve got to create more of those, create more takeaways,” said Ryan. “We have guys in position. They see that on the film. Now it’s taking that next step and finishing the play. Those plays are the differences in games. If you come up with two or three sacks, if you make that interception, that’s the difference.”

Whitaker said the preseason expectations for Maine’s Black Hole defense were so high that players have struggled to meet them.

“We’ve been very uptight, trying to exceed those expectations,” he said. “We want to loosen up and have some fun. Mental mistakes are caused by guys trying to do too much. Once we have fun, we can get back to playing Maine football.”

Nick Charlton, Maine’s first-year head coach, said his team is close to where it should be. “But at the end of the day we need to stop the run, tackle better,” he said. “And we need to get the run game going.”

Junior Chris Ferguson, who leads Football Championship Subdivision quarterbacks in passing with 370 yards per game, said it’s much too early to panic about anything.

“We’ll figure things out,” he said. “This game is a great opportunity to do that. We know we have to be on point the rest of the season.”

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