Nick Charlton’s Maine football team ranks near the bottom in several key defensive categories among the nation’s FCS teams. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

The Black Hole, the nickname given to the University of Maine’s defense, has always been a source of pride for the Black Bears football program.

It instills images of toughness and aggression and physicality and is usually the strong point of the team.

This year, however, Maine is reeling on defense, ranking among the nation’s worst teams in many defensive categories. And if the Black Bears are going to make a push for a Football Championship Subdivision playoff berth, the defense is going to have to make an abrupt turnaround.

Maine hopes that turnaround starts at noon Saturday when the Black Bears (1-3 overall, 0-2 Colonial Athletic Association) play Elon (2-3, 1-1) at Alfond Stadium in Orono. It is the first of back-to-back home games for the Black Bears, who are coming off a bye week and have seven games remaining, six in the CAA.

“Everything is right ahead of us, everything,” said senior safety Fofie Bazzie, a transfer from Maryland. “Those three losses don’t define who we are, they’re just one chapter of our story. Stay tuned. Understand that we are the Black Bears and we are always going to fight and claw to the end.”

Bazzie doesn’t need to look at the statistics to know the defense has to improve, but they are glaring.

Of the 123 schools in FCS, Maine ranks 105th in total defense (allowing 462.8 yards per game), 113th in pass defense (301.2 yards per game), 108th in scoring (39 points allowed per game) and 122nd in sacks (only two, for an FCS-worst seven yards).

Much of the problem has been giving up explosive plays – characterized as runs of 12 yards or more and passes of 15 yards or more.

In its first four games, Maine has allowed 46 such plays – 14 on the ground, 32 passing. The Black Bears have yielded four passing touchdowns of at least 50 yards.

Bazzie, who brings a high level of energy to every practice and game, said there is a simple solution:

“It starts with everyone knowing their assignment, then wanting to make a play,” he said. “You have to want to make a play, you have to have the mindset that we have to stop them. If we stay on the same page, if we think about making it a three-and-out on every play, we’ll be good. We’ve just got to be able to do what we do and go from there – play fast and play physical.”

Maine Coach Nick Charlton said explosive plays occur “when you’re not doing your job.”

Preventing them, he said, is about “communication, execution, and not pressing when you’re in a tough spot.”

He said one way to limit an opponent’s explosive plays is to create turnovers. Maine ranks in the middle in that category, tied for 62nd with three fumble recoveries and three interceptions.

Both Charlton and Bazzie know that has to improve, too.

“This is Division I football,” said Charlton. “Nobody is gifting us the ball; we’ve got to take it away. We’ve done a better job with takeaways the last couple of weeks, but now we’ve got to put together a complete game. That’s what we’re looking for.

“As we get into this stretch of games, a big part of it is focus and execution. It always comes down to just a couple of plays every game.”

Bazzie, who leads Maine with 39 tackles and four pass breakups, said takeaways are essential if the Black Bears want to win.

“That’s what it’s about,” he said. “We have to be able to get the ball back to the offense. We don’t want to be on the field too long. That’s when bad things tend to happen.

“The way we can get takeaways is to play with great eyes, read your keys and run to the ball. If we’re all running to the ball, things happen. Maybe the ball is tipped and the interception goes into your hands. Maybe you make a hit and the ball pops out and someone else who is running to the ball picks it up.

“But you’ve got to be able to read your keys. Do that, and everything will take care of itself.”

Bazzie said the bye week came at the right time for the Black Bears.

“We definitely needed the break,” he said. “It allowed us to regroup and get ready for this seven-game stretch.”

NOTES: Quarterback Joe Fagnano, who suffered a high ankle sprain in his right foot in Maine’s loss at James Madison on Sept. 11, is still out “indefinitely,” according to Charlton. Running back Elijah Barnwell, who leads Maine with 184 rushing yards, continues to recover from an ankle injury he suffered in the Northern Illinois loss, and defensive end Jamehl Wiley is still recovering from a leg injury he suffered in the win over Merrimack. It could be a game-time decision on both of them. … Derek Robertson will get his third start at quarterback. He has completed 46.5 percent of his passes (33 for 71) with one interception and two touchdown passes.

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