New Mexico Football: First Look At The Maine Black Bears
The Lobos will open their 2022 football season against a Maine squad that’s tougher than you think.
Maine is starting a new chapter of its own.
The New Mexico Lobos will begin year three of the Danny Gonzales era at home against the Maine Black Bears, an opponent who will be searching for improvements of its own this fall.
Since winning the CAA conference in 2018, the program stagnated in the last few years and has played roughly .500 ball in the last three seasons. With a new head coach in the mix, however, the Black Bears won’t be afraid of an early road test.
Location: Orono, Maine
Conference: Colonial Athletic Association
Series History: This will be the first meeting between New Mexico and Maine.
2021 Record: 6-5 (4-4 CAA)
Head Coach: Jordan Stevens (first year). After losing Nick Charlton to UConn this off-season, the Black Bears didn’t have to look too far to find his replacement in early December.
This will be Stevens’s first stint as a head coach, but he’s a former Black Bear player who first cut his teeth on Maine’s sidelines as a defensive line coach after wrapping up his playing days. He then left for Yale in 2015 and was elevated to co-defensive coordinator in 2018, just in time to help guide the Bulldogs to its 16th Ivy League title the following year.
They remained stingy upon returning to play in 2021, finishing 16th among FCS teams in allowing 4.72 yards per play while leading the country with a third-down conversion rate of just 22.1%. Surely, that made putting in a call to New Haven a pretty easy choice.
Michael Gerace, OL
One of two Maine players to be named a first-team all-CAA selection last season, Gerace is one of the longest-tenured Black Bears on the roster. He’s appeared in 39 games since 2018, including 35 starts, and set a new personal best in 2021 with a 73.1 overall grade from Pro Football Focus, the eighth-best mark among FCS centers.
Freddie Brock, RB
After getting his feet wet during the FCS’s 2021 spring season, Brock emerged as one of the CAA’s top young running backs in the fall. He led the Black Bears with ten total touchdowns on the strength of 857 all-purpose yards, so chances are he’ll continue to be a focal point of the Maine offense.
Shakur Smalls, SS
Smalls impressed in his first extended run as a starter, tying for the team lead with six pass breakups to go along with 53 total tackles, two forced fumbles and two interceptions. According to Pro Football Focus, he also accrued a pass-coverage grade of 76.4, meaning that there’s plenty of room for growth.
— Maine Football (@BlackBearsFB) November 6, 2021
Khairi Manns, DL
If you’ll pardon a pun, Manns has almost done enough between the Black Bears’ spring and fall seasons last year to be… Maine’s main man. Once the groans have subsided, just make note that he’s already racked up nine tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks in 15 games.
— Maine Football (@BlackBearsFB) October 30, 2021
Joe Fagnano, QB
Fagnano only got to play in four games last fall because he suffered a high ankle sprain that knocked out him for most of the year, but there’s no doubt he’s a difference maker when healthy. In sixteen career games, he owns a 62% completion rate and has thrown for 3,424 yards and 31 touchdowns, with an interception rate of just 1.5%.
Need more proof? In his last two starts of 2021, Fagnano led Maine to a 25-point win over UMass and then rallied the team from an early 13-point deficit to defeat rival New Hampshire.
— Maine Football (@BlackBearsFB) September 3, 2021
Fagnano’s absence did a number on Maine’s entire offense last fall, especially since backup quarterback Derek Robertson only completed 50.8% of his throws and averaged just 6.3 yards per attempt. As a result, the Black Bears managed just 5.27 yards per play and scored 25 points per game.
Assuming a clean bill of health, though, Maine could rebound with Fagnano and Brock in the backfield, though the offense must find a way to replace their top two pass catchers, including all-conference wide receiver Andre Miller. Senior tight end Shawn Bowman (24 catches, 282 yards, four TDs) should help fill some of that void, but more will be expected of veterans like Montigo Moss, Jacob Hennie, and Zavier Scott.
The famed “Black Hole” defense was merely okay in 2021, allowing 27 points a game while giving up 5.94 yards per play. However, those averages ranked 10th and 11th, respectively, in the CAA and Stevens’s return as head coach almost certainly signals an intent of return to prominence on this side of the ball.
Despite the loss of star linebacker Ray Miller, Maine isn’t empty-handed on defense. Manns and the linebacker pair of Xavier Nurse and Adrian Otero (123 combined tackles, 6.5 combined TFLs) give them reliable veterans in the front seven, while Smalls and Robbie Riobe provide a solid safety tandem. They also return cornerback Buggs Brown, who led the team with three interceptions as a freshman and figured to be integral to the defense’s future after cracking the starting lineup in the second half of last season.
The Black Bears won’t be the toughest FCS squad that a Mountain West team faces this season, but they have enough talent to pose a reasonable test for New Mexico. However, the Lobos should have enough on offense to take advantage of a Maine defense that wasn’t especially adept at anything last season and now must improve without a number of key contributors.
New Mexico 27, Maine 17