Coach Joe Harasymiak has always wanted to establish a balanced attack, mixing the run and the pass to keep opposing defenses off balance.
That is what the University of Maine had in Saturday’s 20-16 Colonial Athletic Association victory over Albany.
For the first time this season, three running backs gained at least 43 rushing yards as UMaine netted 187 yards on 44 carries (4.3 yards per carry).
Sophomore Darian Davis-Ray ran for 81 yards on 16 carries, freshman Josh Mack gained 57 yards on 11 tries and junior transfer Zaire Williams amassed 43 yards on 11 attempts.
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Junior Nigel Beckford, the team’s leading rusher the past two seasons, has been lost for the year with a broken tibia (lower leg) suffered in the 28-21 victory over Delaware.
Senior quarterback Dan Collins threw for 280 yards and three touchdowns against the Great Danes. He completed 11 of his 23 passes.
Mack is the team’s leading rusher with 253 yards on 48 carries, while Davis-Ray is second (39-202) and Williams has 188 yards on 51 rushes.
“It’s a good problem to have,” Harasymiak said. “All three have come a long way since the first game. We’re very excited about the group.”
He said it will be a challenge to get them all reps and keep them “in a groove.” He added that when it comes to crunch time, they will go with the “hot hand.”
Davis-Ray was the one with the hot hand vs. Albany.
“He has a very high football IQ. He has the ability to hit the hole very well. We will continue to evaluate them,” said Harasymiak, who added the offensive line had a “really nice game for the most part.”
Each of the three backs has been the team’s leading rusher in at least one game. Davis-Ray was the top ground gainer against Toledo, James Madison and Albany. Mack had the most yards against Connecticut and Bryant and Williams had the honors at Delaware.
Harasymiak noted that if his team can establish a consistently productive running game, opposing defenses are going to have to make adjustments to stop it and that could leave UMaine’s dangerous flock of receivers in desirable one-on-one situations.
“Any time you can run the ball effectively, it puts the defense in a situation where they may have to put an extra guy in the box or pressure you and that leaves your receivers in one-on-ones on the outside,” he said.
“All of their running backs are solid,” observed University of Rhode Island coach Jim Fleming, whose team hosts UMaine on Saturday at noon.
The passing game has been diversified as Collins has five receivers with eight or more catches.
He threw TD passes to three different receivers against Albany as senior Jordan Dunn snared a 51-yarder, sophomore Micah Wright caught a 49-yarder and true freshman Earnest Edwards hauled in a 40-yarder.
Edwards was the leading receiver with four catches for 79 yards. He also carried the ball three times for 30 yards and returned a kickoff 83 yards.
“Earnest is a very talented young man,” said Harasymiak. “We knew that when we recruited him. He’s a great kid from a great program (Aquinas Institute in Rochester, New York). He is very dynamic with the ball in his hands. We need to continue to get the ball to him.”
Edwards fumbled the ball twice against Albany but a teammate recovered one and the other went out of bounds, prompting Harasymiak to say Edwards has to do a better job “taking care of the ball.”
Jaleel Reed is the leading receiver as he has caught 18 passes for 321 yards. Wright (17-284), Jared Osumah (11-179), Marquise Adams (9-102) Edwards (8-157) all have been threats.
On the injury front, UMaine was without junior transfer safety DeAndre Scott, who had a sprained foot. He ranks second in the CAA in kickoff return yardage with a 26.9-yard average and the Black Bears lead the conference (25.1 ypr). Sophomore Jeffrey DeVaughn is fifth at 22.8.
Harasymiak hopes to get Scott back for the Rhode Island game but said, “it’s tricky. We don’t want to push it too fast.”
The one special team that continues to struggle is the field-goal unit.
UMaine is just 1-for-6. Patrick Leonard is 1-for-5 and Derek Deoul missed a 28-yarder against Albany in his first attempt of the season.
“It’s our own fault. We have to recruit better. We have to put a bigger emphasis on it,” said Harasymiak. “It’s a very challenging position. We’re going to keep believing in these guys (and developing them). One is a sophomore walk-on (Leonard) and the other is a redshirt freshman (Deoul).”
The return of senior linebacker Christophe Mulumba Tshimanga gave the Black Bears a big lift. He missed the Delaware game with an upper body injury.
Mulumba Tshimanga had a game-high 13 tackles and UMaine limited Albany to 148 rushing yards on 38 carries.
Delaware rushed for 319 yards on 46 carries without him in the lineup.
“He was not only flying around making plays, he gives everyone else confidence,” Harasymiak said. “They play better when he’s around them. It was a big confidence booster. He is trimmer now so he is able to run from sideline to sideline which is huge.”
He thought his team did a better job tackling against Albany.