The University of Maine football team preached “growing up” the past two weeks. Since its 38-21 loss to the University of Richmond on Oct. 17, the Black Bears were left with yet another loss where they outplayed their opponent through the first half yet stumbled again in the last two quarters.
With two weeks to prepare for their next opponent following last week’s bye week, the Black Bears may have finally turned the corner.
Warren Smith had two touchdowns and the UMaine defense forced six turnovers as the Black Bears held on to a halftime lead and defeated conference rival UMass 19-9 Saturday afternoon at Alfond Stadium.
“They came today in a very physical, nasty mood and we persevered,” said UMaine coach Jack Cosgrove. “We were relentless to get the win and that’s good stuff for a young football team.”
UMaine (4-4, 3-2 CAA) has either led or been tied in every contest at halftime this year and had been outscored 120-41 in the second half until Saturday.
“To me, I felt like some of the younger guys have only experienced us being up in the first half, and then something happens in the second half and we end up losing the game,” said senior captain Mike Brusko. “It started to feel like that was almost our fate.”
“It was absolutely enormous for us, for guys to be a part of it, to experience it and to understand that we can be winning at halftime, go on and build on that lead and go win a football game.”
Holding a 10-7 halftime lead, the Black Bears tacked on a 32-yard field goal by Jordan Waxman in the third quarter to extend their lead to six points. The field goal came after the Black Bears had a touchdown pass by Mike Brusko taken away. Brusko faked a quarterback draw and found Landis Williams wide open in the end zone for the score. The referee, however, ruled Brusko down for a loss on the play as he said he faked a knee.
“My knee didn’t touch, and he didn’t say that my knee touched,” Brusko said. “His call was that he thought I was faking taking a knee and he said once you fake taking a knee, you’re automatically down.”
Cosgrove disputed the call and believed a penalty should’ve been called on the play if the referee said he was faking a knee.
“If you’re calling an act of deception you should’ve penalized us,” he said. “You see [University of Florida quarterback Tim] Tebow do that all the time.”
Brusko was also influential in the punting game, in addition to his quarterbacking and receiving duties. Used to punt against the wind that was blowing hard toward the north end zone all afternoon, he used his low kicks for a 35.5-yard average among his four punts.
In the fourth quarter, with the windy conditions at the back of the Black Bears, Smith directed a scoring drive that put the game out of reach, capping off a 6-play, 71-yard drive with its only rush. The sophomore scored on a quarterback draw from 5 yards out, leaping over defenders into the end zone.
On the two-point conversion attempt though, Smith threw an interception to Ke’Mon Bailey, who returned it to the opposing end zone for two UMass points, making it 19-9.
The UMaine defense held strong in the final few minutes, not allowing any points the rest of the way.
In the opening quarter, the Black Bears showed their first half prowess putting points on the board first. After UMass’ opening drive of the game came up empty on an Armando Cuko missed field goal, the Black Bears drove down the field and Waxman converted a 25-yard attempt for a 3-0 lead.
The Minutemen capitalized in the second quarter on an 11-play, 77-yard drive, capped off by Jon Hernandez’s 1-yard touchdown run to make it 7-3.
The opportunistic Black Bear defense recovered at the end of the first half, and sophomore linebacker Donte Dennis intercepted a pass at the UMass 46.
Smith, who gained 265 total yards, then directed the offense deep inside Minutemen territory, with the big play coming on a 25-yard pass to Jeremy Kelly on fourth down. Smith then found Ty Jones for a 7-yard touchdown on a leaping grab by the junior wideout to make it 10-7 at the half.
“We just try to respond off of their energy and when they turn the ball over we try to respond because the momentum’s in favor,” said Smith of the defense’s forced turnovers.
He was 19-for-35 through the air on the afternoon and passed for 226 yards. Landis Williams was his top target on the afternoon, catching six balls for 77 yards.
Dennis led the Black Bear defense with two interceptions and a fumble recovery. Vinson Givans had seven tackles and Jordan Stevens contributed a sack.
No. 19 UMass fell to 4-4 overall and 2-3 in the conference with the loss.
UMaine is on the road next Saturday as they travel to Harrisonburg, Va., for a conference matchup with James Madison University at 3 p.m.