By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
BOONE, N.C. — The last time Maine traveled to Appalachian State for an NCAA Division I Football Championship playoff game in 2002, it took two and a half days for game film from the two schools to make it between Orono, ME. and this mountain resort town.
Taking a break from game preparations to watch a few minutes of an Appalachian State men’s basketball game an evening after the playoff field had been announced, ASU coach Jerry Moore complained that the only game film he had seen of the Black Bears was a television game of Maine and Hofstra (yes Virginia, Hofstra was still playing college football back then) on videotape.
Maine coach Jack Cosgrove had to rely on a previous-season’s playoff tape from ASU’s first-round 40-27 victory over William & Mary in 2001.
Technology changes, using software such as Dragonfly, mean that teams can now trade game film digitally over the Internet. Even before the playoff field was announced, Appalachian State and Maine had a season’s worth of material on each other.
There will be few secrets when these two hard-nosed Football Championship Subdivision teams meet on Saturday at 2 p.m. at Kidd Brewer Stadium.
The winner in this battle of second-place teams from FCS power conferences will advance to the quarterfinals against either No. 3-seeded Georgia Southern (9-2), or Old Dominion (10-2) next week. Maine also faced Georgia Southern in the quarterfinals after beating ASU, 14-13, in the 2002 playoffs.
The routes that the two teams have taken to the playoffs couldn’t be have been more different, however.
Cosgrove likes to refer to his program as the “Island of Lost Toys,” a reference to the children’s holiday television classic Rudolph: The Rednosed Reindeer.
Maine doesn’t recruit many blue chip recruits, but has found ways to be successful, winning shares of Atlantic 10 titles in 2001-02 and making four playoff appearances in Cosgrove’s 19-year tenure, including two in the past four years.
Coming off a 4-7 season, the Black Bears were picked to finish near the bottom of the Colonial Athletic Association, but instead they came within a game of the league championship, going 8-3 overall and 6-2 in league.
Maine was in the driver’s seat for the title until losing its final two games, 32-21 to eventual CAA champion Towson and 30-27 to New Hampshire, which shared second place with Maine and Old Dominion.
Altogether, five CAA made the playoff field and all are still alive for the second round.
The gritty Black Bears have shown a capacity for comebacks, beating James Madison, 25-24, on the signature college football play of the season — backup quarterback Chris Triester’s two-point conversion run from a unique PAT formation in overtime — and using a 23-point fourth-quarter surge to knock off Richmond, 23-22.
Maine also threw a major scare into BCS Pittsburgh before losing 35-29.
For his work, Cosgrove was named the New England Football Writer’s coach of the year earlier this week. He was the first Maine coach to claim that honor since Tom Lictenberg won it in 1989.
Three of Cosgrove’s players also made the All-New England team, strong safety Jerron McMillian, right guard Chris Howley and wide receiver Maurice McDonald, all of them also earning All-CAA first-team recognition.
Maine has sparked its turnaround by limiting turnovers and playing its trademark, tough defense.
But one of the major reasons for the Black Bears’ success can be traced back to the off-season, when Maine had its best turnout ever for summer workouts.
“This is probably the best group of kids we’ve had since our championship years,” said Cosgrove. “The commitment level of this team has been phenomenal.”
Defensive end Michael Cole, just a sophomore, was the CAA leader with 10 sacks and had 13 1/2 tackles for loss, while free safety Travis Coston is ranked fifth nationally with six interceptions, to go with 75 tackles.
Senior outside linebacker Vinson Givans is a playmaker with 84 tackles.
Maine ranks 43rd nationally in total defense (348 yards per game) and 36th in scoring (23.9 points per game) and 20th in turnover margin. The Black Bears are just 71st in rushing defense (158 yards), but are 29th in pass defense (190 yards).
On offense, the improvement of ex-Iona transfer Warren Smith at quarterback has been a key to the improvement of Maine’s spread attack.
Smith had nine TD passes and 10 interceptions as a junior, but has changed that figure to 17 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions this season, while passing for 2,643 yards and rushing for 249 yards and six scores.
Smith has been under more pressure in recent weeks and fired six of those interceptions in the final three regular-season games.
A major reason for that slide was the injury status of running back Pushaun Brown.
The hard-running senior has 944 yards and 10 TDs on the ground, but he has seen limited action down the stretch and missed the Towson game with a variety of ailments, including a bruised shoulder.
“We were fortunate to get the bye and felt like it was much-needed,” Cosgrove told the Bangor Daily News. “I’m very excited about the state of the union of our guys, their spirit and how they looked physically (upon their return from the break).”
Smith and Triester have a strong group of receivers to throw to with McDonald, Justin Perillo, Damarr Aultman , Arthur Williams and Derek Session, a player who showed his team-first mentally by switching from feature back to receiver.
The Black Bears are 28th nationally in passing (240 yards), 79th in rushing (132 yards), 50th in total offense (372 yards) and 36th in scoring (29.5 points).
Maine can at times show some shakiness on special teams. Jordan Waxman is 83rd in the country in punting (36 average) and the kickoff return teams ranks 119th with an average of 14.8 yards per effort.
Appalachian State has become a fixture in the playoffs, making its seventh consecutive trip to the postseason and its 17th appearance in Moore’s 23rd year running the program.
But a record-tying six-year run as Southern Conference champion came to an end and ASU showed vulnerability in losses to BCS powerhouse Virginia Tech, Wofford and Furman.
The Mountaineers have been somewhat erratic at times, struggling at times on the road. But ASU is 6-0 at home, including a 24-17 victory over then-top-ranked Georgia Southern.
Maine, however, is a team that knows about winning in hostile environments, including that 2002 victory at Kidd Brewer Stadium.
“We’ve made that a major point of emphasis,” Cosgrove said. “We were on the road six times this year and went 4-2. I’m pleased with that part of it, the businesslike approach that our guys have taken and embraced.”
That would be the last time ASU lost at Kidd Brewer Stadium until 2007, when Georgia Southern stopped a 31-game, home winning streak.
The 2003 freshman class at App State went through their entire college careers without suffering a home loss, ending their perfect slate with a 49-28 semifinal playoff win over Youngstown State in 2006 that set up the Mountaineers for their second of three consecutive national championship, this one against Massachusetts, 28-17.
The Mountaineers’ main area of concern this season has been inexperienced play on the offensive line.
ASU’s struggles on offense became so severe at midseason that All-American senior quarterback DeAndre Presley was benched in favor of sophomore Jamal Jackson.
The Mountaineers were averaging just 24 points per game with Presley — who finished third in the 2010 Walter Payton Award voting — at the controls, but have soared to an average of 32 since Jackson became a starter.
The Mountaineers showed their firepower in the final game of the regular season, rallying from a 21-0 first-period deficit to beat Elon 28-24 — the largest comeback in the school’s Division I history.
Passing yardage has surged from 177 yards to 276 yards per game and Jackson has a school-record string with six consecutive 200-yard passing performances.
Presley has seen action as a cornerback, receiver and kick returner, in addition to backing up Jackson.
Jackson has also done a better job of getting the ball to ASU’s top weapon, senior wide receiver Brian Quick. Quick set a school record for career receiving yardage in his last game and now has 3,377 yards for his career.
Expected by some NFL experts to go as the first pick among FCS players in next year’s draft and maybe as early as late in the first round, Quick has 64 catches in an offense that likes to spread the ball around, good for 11 TDs and an average of 16.5 yards per catch.
For years, Appalachian State has been one of the foremost rushing teams with its spread attack, but the Mountaineers have uncharacteristically struggled to run inside for most of the season.
The Mountaineers’ chief threat on the ground is versatile senior Travaris Cadet, who has also played quarterback and receiver during his ASU career.
Cadet has 1,609 all-purpose yards this season and six touchdowns, with 655 yards coming on the ground.
Jackson (2,037 yards of total offense in nine games) has 308 yards rushing and has accounted for 21 touchdowns, seven on the ground, while throwing just six interceptions.
Another ground threat who has been coming on is speedy junior Steven Miller, a change-of-pace back with 377 yards rushing.
All-American tight end Ben Jordan only has 14 catches, but can be dangerous and Andrew Peacock has come on strong as a compliment to Quick at wide receiver with 42 catches.
ASU is 37th in rushing offense (170 yards), 40th in passing (231 yards) and 31st in total offense (401), but those numbers have grown in the second half of the season.
The Mountaineers average 30 points per game on the season (34th nationally).
There have been radical changes to the Appalachian State defense this season, as the Mountaineers have made the move from a 4-3 set to the 3-4.
ASU ranks 37th in total defense (334 yards) and 36th in scoring defense (22.9), while giving up 143 yards a game on the ground (37th) and 200 yardson average by air (45th).
The Mountaineers had two defensive players drafted and another in NFL off their 2010 roster and have had to regroup.
The loss of senior starters Ed Gainey at cornerback and Lanston Tanyi at linebacker to off-field issues have hurt the depth of this unit.
But John Rizor, who moved from defensive end to linebacker in the new set, defensive lineman Ronald Blair and linebacker Jeremy Kimbrough (93 tackles) have been among the standouts.
In the secondary, Demetrius McCray is ranked ninth nationally with five interceptions.
Sam Martin has struggled with a groin injury that has kept him from place-kicking duties, but he is among the best punters in FCS (41.1 average).
Drew Stewart has come on to solidify the kicking game and had a school-record six field goals against Western Carolina.
Considering the two teams involved, it should be a matchup worthy of that one-point showdown the first time these two met.