Maine rested and ready for high-powered JMU
If there's a belief that Joe Harasymiak has yet to fully pay his dues to become a Division I head coach, consider the debt settled with Maine's September schedule.
After beginning Harasymiak's inaugural season with road games against a pair of 2015 FBS bowl participants, the Black Bears take on another daunting assignment when 11th-ranked James Madison visits Alfond Stadium Saturday (12 p.m. ET) in the CAA opener for both schools.
It's also a matchup pitting the conference's newest and youngest head coaches, though the current gap between Harasymiak, 30, and the Dukes' Mike Houston extends beyond their 14-year age difference. While the former takes another crack at a breakthrough first win, Houston parlayed a Southern Conference co-championship and FCS playoff appearance at The Citadel into one of the subdivision's most attractive offseason vacancies.
Maine (0-2) has some catching up to do as well in terms of recent accomplishments among the two programs. Whereas Houston inherited a roster stocked with proven veterans from JMU's 2014 and '15 playoff teams, Harasymiak took over one where sustained success has often been elusive. Though the Black Bears reached the postseason three times since 2008 under the now-retired Jack Cosgrove, they finished 5-6 in each of the subsequent seasons.
Maine's 3-8 record in Cosgrove's final year was its worst since 1995 and it enters Saturday's showdown having lost six straight.
"We've got to get this losing culture out the door here," said Harasymiak, who spent the previous five seasons as a Black Bears assistant and the last two as defensive coordinator. "We're progressing every day, but we've just got to keep believing in the system. The hardest part is we haven't seen the result so far. We've just got to keep grinding away and keep believing in what we're doing."
There certainly have been encouraging signs during the new regime's brief tenure. The Black Bears led AAC member Connecticut midway through the fourth quarter in Harasymiak's debut before the Huskies rallied for 10 unanswered points and a 24-21 victory.
Maine will also be the fresher of the teams, having had the benefit of a bye while JMU (2-1) took its lumps in a 56-28 defeat to North Carolina last Saturday.
Harasymiak hopes his team will be galvanized by the time off and long-awaited opportunity to play at home, an energy it will surely need to combat an explosive Dukes offense that's outscored opponents 70-14 in the first quarter and put up touchdowns on its first three drives against the Tar Heels.
Despite his success running the triple option at The Citadel, Houston chose not to tinker with the spread system that made the Dukes one of the FCS' most prolific attacks during last year's 9-3 campaign, and the decision has so far proven to be prudent. With standout backs Cardon Johnson (297 yards, 4 TDs) and Khalid Abdullah (272 yards, 4 TDs) operating behind a sound line anchored by All-American tackle Mitchell Kirsch and Bryan Schor's ultra-efficient play under center, JMU ranks second in the subdivision in scoring (54.7 ppg) and rushing (339.7 ypg) and fourth in total offense (539.7 ypg). The Dukes gained 495 yards against UNC, 21 more than the Tar Heels surrendered to SEC power Georgia in their opener.
"It's really the operation, just how organized it is and how well-executed it is," Harasymiak said. "We've got to play at a top level to have a chance."
Maine allowed 200 rushing yards to Connecticut and 187 in a 45-3 defeat at Toledo on Sept. 10, but it's fielded one of the CAA's stingiest units under Harasymiak's command. Led by the decorated senior duo of linebacker Christophe Mulumba Tshimanga and lineman Patrick Ricard, the Black Bears were 12th in the FCS against the run last season and in the league's top three in total defense the past two years.
"I think defensively they remind me of my group at The Citadel last year," Houston said. "They're hard-nosed, they're going to be disciplined, they're going to be where they're supposed to be. They're a good football team."
Strides still need to be made by a Maine offense that's struggled in each of the last two seasons, though with Micah Wright returning from a two-game suspension to team with fellow 2015 All-CAA honoree Jordan Dunn and emerging junior Jaleel Reed, the Black Bears have the makings of one of the CAA's most dangerous receiving corps. Reed had eight catches for 169 yards and a touchdown in the UConn game.
"Any time you get a player back with the talent of Micah, who's our deep threat and leading receiver coming back, obviously the guys on offense and the whole team are excited about that," Harasymiak said.
The Black Bears haven't moved the ball much in their more recent encounters with JMU, which has won six of the past seven meetings and is 4-0 in Orono over that stretch. The Dukes have held Maine to no more than 14 points in each of the past five victories, including a 31-7 rout at Alfond Stadium in the last in November 2012.