Maine getting a push
Pushaun Brown is walking around the fieldhouse at the University of Maine with an air of confidence these days, his head held high. Not cocky, but self-assured.
He is healthy for the first time in a while. He is happy, his demeanor reflecting his integral role with a 3-1 Black Bears squad that is making tracks in the Colonial Athletic Association and today faces a major test at seventh-ranked James Madison (4-1).
And yet, Brown is still very hungry, not content to rest on the best performance of his four-year career in Orono.
“It’s great to just fly around, play off your instincts, and not worry about any pain,’’ said the sturdy but elusive 5-foot-10-inch, 210-pound tailback, who was hampered his sophomore season and part of last year with a nagging hernia.
This season, Brown is the man, churning out 6.2 yards per carry, a trusted, respected, and highly productive cog for coach Jack Cosgrove, who readily admits he should have put the ball in the hands of his senior from North Brunswick, N.J., sooner.
“He’s been kind of in the background a bit . . . I guess we did an injustice to Pushaun in a lot of ways,’’ acknowledged Cosgrove, in his 19th season. “But we really committed to making him our marquee guy this season.’’
Brown had earned his spot, ripping off 100-yard performances against UMass (141), Towson (101), and James Madison (106) to close out the 2010 season.
He has only cemented his role this fall: 146 yards against Bryant, 125 at Albany, and his signature effort, a career-high 193 yards and three touchdowns in last week’s 31-17 conquest of visiting Delaware. His only subpar game came in Week 2, a 10-carry, 18-yard line in a 35-29 loss at Pittsburgh, when Maine was forced to pass.
Now, the focus is balance, equal parts Brown (120.5 yards per game) and quarterback Warren Smith, a 6-1, 195-pound senior who is at his best working play-action and hooking up with Maurice McDonald and Derek Session.
The offensive front, anchored by Garrett Williamson, a vocal 6-3, 285-pound junior center, is coming off its best effort of the season. The Black Bears, Cosgrove said, are now firmly committed to the run.
In Brown, he has a steady power back with a burst, a solid blocker with receiving ability.
“Up here, you have to be an all-around back if you want to be the back,’’ said Brown, who often will cue up a YouTube video of his favorite back, Emmitt Smith, the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, for a quick study.
“I’m a student of the game, and try to be technically sound. Knowing the offense well is important. If the back makes one wrong step, it makes it look like the offensive line is not doing their job. A lot of the credit to my success goes to the offensive line.’’
Cosgrove sees a smart kid who places a priority on ball security. “He’s has gotten better the more he has played, it’s great to see . . . we truly need him,’’ he said.
James Madison coach Mickey Matthews calls Brown “a heck of a player . . . one who played very well against Delaware in a game Maine dominated.’’
Brown came away from his afternoon against the Blue Hens satisfied, yet, “there are some things I could have done better, I felt I could do more,’’ he said.
Both Brown and Cosgrove agree that the Black Bears will need more of the same this afternoon in Harrisonburg, Va., to register their first win against JMU since 2003.
“Whether or not he gets an inch against James Madison depends on a lot of factors . . . they frighten me as a defense,’’ said Cosgrove.
“We have to stay hungry, there cannot be a letdown,’’ said Brown, who will be facing the CAA’s top rushing defense (85.8 yards per game). “People thought last week was a fluke. We have a lot to prove.’’
The Black Bears, according to Cosgrove, must play mistake-free.
“This week, in a lot of ways, is easy in terms of preparation, it gets your attention right away,’’ said the coach, who pointed to his team’s second-half surge against Delaware, in which Maine scored off three turnovers, as an indicator of strong team play.
“Our guys are pretty in awe of the opportunity, it’s a great environment, you go on the road, there is a lot of excitement.’’
Another week, another formidable foe in the rugged CAA, which has eight of its 11 programs ranked in the FCS Top 25, including the No. 19 Black Bears.
“It really takes a special group of young men to be successful in this league,’’ said Cosgrove, who is a big believer in what the CAA has done for his program. “We need the league more than the league needs us. We’re the outermost program, it’s a challenge travel-wise, but that is our problem. There is not merit to stepping back. We love this league.’’
Craig Larson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.