Maine excited over Fenway opportunity
By SCOTT GARBARINI
(STATS) - When you're tucked away in the far northeast corner of the continental United States, road trips often tend to be rather long and monotonous.
The University of Maine's next one won't be anything like the usual routine, however.
Getting a welcome break from the rigors of CAA Football play, the Black Bears will visit one of the nation's most storied stadiums, though most of that rich history lies in another sport. Saturday's matchup with former conference rival and current FBS inhabitant Massachusetts will take place at Boston's Fenway Park, where fall events have usually been reserved for the city's beloved Red Sox in recent years.
The contest is part of the Fenway Gridiron Series, a six-game initiative created to showcase college and high school football in the New England region. The event kicks off Friday night with a nationally televised showdown between Ivy League members Dartmouth and Cornell.
"It's a great opportunity for us, for our program, the alumni base in Boston - we have a lot of alumni down there - and for New England football in general," Maine coach Joe Harasymiak said.
The Black Bears are no strangers to playing in larger venues, having scheduled two road dates with FBS teams in four of the last five seasons. But with what should be a more neutral environment set against the backdrop of the famed Green Monster, this one figures to have a far different feel to it than the program's other recent encounters with upper-level programs.
"If you can't get excited for this game, then you probably shouldn't be part of our program here," Harasymiak said.
Tight end Brenden O'Neil will have no such problems. The graduate transfer from Wake Forest hails from the Boston suburb of Burlington and will have approximately 120 friends and family members cheering him and the Black Bears on from the Fenway seats.
"They're all tailgating at my house beforehand," he said. "My mom rented a couple school buses to take them in and make sure everyone gets there nice and safe."
Motivation could have been an issue for Maine (4-4) following last week's 31-17 league loss to Delaware. The Blue Hens scored 14 unanswered fourth-quarter points to almost certainly end the Black Bears' hopes of obtaining a postseason berth
"I think it's probably the best game that we can have lined up after losing (last) Saturday and just kind of realizing that the playoffs are gone," Harasymiak said.
UMass still looms as a stern challenge despite a deceiving 2-7 record. The Minutemen defeated Sun Belt contender Appalachian State two weeks back and put a scare into SEC members Tennessee and Mississippi State in tight losses. They led nationally ranked MSU 20-13 at halftime last weekend before the Bulldogs rallied for a 34-23 victory.
The Minutemen do rank 106th in the FBS in rushing defense, however, yielding just over 200 yards per game on the ground. It's a potential advantage Maine will surely look to exploit with workhouse running back Josh Mack, averaging an FCS-best 144 rushing yards per game. The sophomore standout has amassed 628 yards on 109 carries over the last four weeks and put up 211 yards from scrimmage against Delaware's strong defense.
Though the schools haven't faced one another since Maine came through with a 24-14 victory (its most recent over an FBS opponent) in Amherst in 2013, there's still plenty of familiarity between the programs. Black Bears offensive coordinator Liam Coen served as UMass' quarterbacks coach in 2015, and also happens to be the Minutemen's all-time leader in passing yards and touchdown passes as a four-year starter from 2005-08.
The 2013 matchup still stands as the lone meeting since UMass made the jump to FBS in 2012, but the Black Bears and Minutemen squared off annually from 1958-2011 as affiliates in the Yankee Conference, Atlantic 10 and CAA.
Updated November 10, 2017