By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
Editor’s note: This is the one in a series of three historical articles from the David Coulson archives that take readers back to the last time Maine traveled to Appalachian State for a first-round playoff game, in 2002. The two teams meet again on Saturday at 2 p.m. at Kidd Brewer Stadium in an NCAA Division I Football Championship second-round contest.
This preview article of the 2002 meeting was originally published by several North Carolina newspapers and the web site I-AA.org on Nov. 27, 2002.
BOONE, N.C. — Jerry Moore and the Appalachian State football staff found out this week just how difficult is to get a package from Orono, Maine to Boone.
Forget that stuff of “neither rain or snow, or dark of night.”
“Brown” didn’t work for the Mountaineers.
There were no “Golden Packages” delivered at Owens Fieldhouse this week.
As a matter of fact, game tapes from the University of Maine didn’t arrive in Boone until about 10:30 p.m. on Tuesday.
ASU can just be thankful its not UPS, Federal Express or the U.S. Postal Service delivering the Maine football team to Kidd Brewer Stadium for Saturday’s first-round I-AA playoff game at 1 p.m.
“We were here most of the night,” said Moore. “And now we wish we hadn’t gotten the tapes. They’re pretty good.”
What Moore saw was a squad that reminded him a lot of his own Mountaineers.
Maine is “about as fundamentally sound as any team we’ve played this year,” said Moore. “If you have to put a stamp on them, they’re a very physical team. They line up and whip people (on offense). They’re not gingerbready on defense.”
It didn’t take long for Moore to find the strength of Maine’s 4-4 defense, two-time A-10 player of the year and Buchanan Award finalist Stephen Cooper, an outside linebacker.
“I don’t know if we’ve seen a player like him in the (Southern Conference) in a long time,” said Moore. “The way he runs, he reminds me a lot of (ASU’s two-time Buchanan Award winner and Dallas Cowboys All-Pro) Dexter Coakley.”
The No. 7 ranked Bears (10-2) will need a huge game out of Cooper and the rest of the defense of they are to stay with the No. 5 Mountaineers (8-3).
After struggling to back-to-back losses in the middle of the season, ASU has rebounded with three straight wins when losing would have meant playoff elimination.
The Mountaineer offense has displayed a healthy balance between the throwing of senior quarterback Joe Burchette and the running of power tailback Jerry Beard (757 yards, seven TDs) and speedster Sean Jackson (519 yards, 2 TDs).
Beard was sidelined in the second half of ASU’s last game with a deep bruise to the lower leg, but has been running well in practice this week.
The ASU defense, meanwhile, has given up just 309 yards of total offense in its past two games, wins over VMI and Western Carolina.
“We haven’t been giving up big plays,” said ASU defensive end Josh Jeffries, like Cooper, one of the favorites for the Buchanan Award. “When we don’t give up big plays, we’re pretty hard to beat on defense.”
The offense that Maine brings to Boone on Saturday pales in comparison to the unit that led the Black Bears to nine consecutive wins and a No. 3 national ranking earlier this season.
Maine lost two of the A-10’s top receivers earlier this season when Stephan Gomes (60 receptions, 787 yards, 9 TDs last year) and Paris Minor (52 receptions, 754 yards, 3 TDs) were expelled from the university over an off-campus rape allegation.
The players said they had been involved with consensual sex and no charges were filed, but an arbitrator upheld their removals last week.
Besides that season-long distraction, the Black Bears have now lost the heart and soul of their offense, three-year quarterback starter Jake Eaton. Eaton suffered a torn MCL in a No. 16 win at Richmond and is likely out for the playoffs.
His backup, freshman Chris Legree, bruised his throwing shoulder in the same game and was unable to play against New Hampshire, leaving the reins to untested sophomore Jon Mecywor.
Mecywor was 7-of-20 for just 70 yards and two TDs, but more importantly, he avoided turnovers.
Maine coach Jack Cosgrove hasn’t tipped his hand as to Saturday’s starter, other than to rule out Eaton’s return.
Whoever starts at quarterback, they will probably spend a lot of time handing off to powerful sophomore tailback Marcus Williams. Williams rushed 211 times for 1,136 yards (5.4 average) and six touchdowns.
If the ASU defense puts the brakes on Williams, it could mean a long day for the Black Bear offense.
But Moore isn’t underestimating the Bears.
“I told our players that they went down to Lake Charles, LA. last year and beat McNeese State.”
But even with that success last year, Maine players and coaches expressed disappointment when they were sent on the road for the first round despite earning a co-championship in the Atlantic 10.
The Black Bears were particularly upset when both Northeastern and Villanova, the other two teams to make the playoffs from the A-10 were rewarded with home games.
“After we won Saturday, my mind set was hopeful that we would be in Orono,” Cosgrove said.
But the decision was one of dollars and sense. ASU draws an average of nearly three times as many fans at home then Maine does.
Just 3,064 showed up on Saturday on a cold and stormy day to watch the Black Bears clinch their share of the A-10 title with a 31-14 victory over New Hampshire.
There is also the difficulty of getting teams to the isolated Maine campus.
The Mountaineers also have a longer playoff tradition, having advanced to postseason play for five straight years and drawing a home assignment for the fourth time in five years. Maine has made trips in back-to-back years.
At least the Bears may be playing in familiar weather. Saturday’s forecast is calling for snow showers.
“The experience last year of going into the great unknown at McNeese, that’s going to help us tremendously,” said Cosgrove.
Moore said he is glad to be preparing for Saturday, regardless of the locale.
“We’re just happy to be a part of the playoffs. We’d go anywhere to play. We’d play in Alaska.”