The University of Maine Black Bears’ football team hosted the Elon University Phoenix on Saturday, Nov. 17, in a contest that propelled Maine (8-3) to their first Colonial Athletic Association championship since the 2013-14 season.
While Maine struggled to move the ball through the air, as second-year starting quarterback Chris Ferguson was only able to complete four passes on 10 attempts for 51 yards and an interception before being knocked out of the game due to an injury, the rushing attack compensated to the best of their ability. First-year backup quarterback Isaiah Robinson replaced Ferguson, but found similar problems against a strong Elon pass defense. Robinson finished the day completing four of 10 attempts for 35 yards and a pair of interceptions.
First-year running back Ramon Jefferson kept the Black Bears’ offense afloat on 25 rushing attempts, gaining 130 of Maine’s 234 total offensive yards. In comparison, the Phoenix had 432 yards of total offense for the day. Elon’s fourth-year starting quarterback Daniel Thompson had a rough outing against the vaunted “Black Hole” defense, completing just 18 of 43 attempted passes for 250 yards, an interception and a touchdown.
The Phoenix became only the second team to rush for more than 100 yards against Maine this season, with their backfield collectively putting up 153 rushing yards on the day. Second-year running back Brelynd Cyphers and first-year running back Jaylan Thomas carried the majority of the load for Elon, combining for 133 yards on 24 combined attempts.
Black Bears’ third-year wide receiver Earnest Edwards, who tallied two receptions but had a net yard gain of zero, showed off his speed and plethora of talent in the team’s return game.
In the second quarter, following a long Elon drive resulting in a touchdown that tied the game at 7-7, Edwards and the return unit went to work. Catching the ball inside his own 10-yard line, Edwards took off up the right side of the field. Thanks to a few fantastic, edge-sealing blocks by Maine’s return unit, Edwards raced up the sideline with only second-year kicker Christian Vansickle to beat. Edwards turned on the burners, and torched his way past Vansickle on his way to the end zone for the 95-yard return and score.
Following a 39-yard field goal from first-year kicker Skyler Davis, the Phoenix elected to have Davis kick the ball back to Edwards. In a surprising move, Elon special teams coordinator Matt Merritt did not order his kicker to send an unreturnable ball to Edwards, and Merritt paid the price. Fielding the ball at his own seven-yard line, Edwards took off straight up the field, following blocks and breaking a tackle to burst free, thanks in part to a block made by fourth-year defensive back Jeffrey Devaughn on Davis. Edwards saw nothing but green after crossing the 50, and ran the ball in for the 93-yard return and score, putting the Black Bears ahead 24-13 following a chip shot extra point from second-year kicker Kenny Doak.
While Maine allowed Elon to march up and down the field to rack up that high yardage total, the Black Bears’ defense locked down when they needed to, forcing two fumbles and recovering both, while second-year linebacker Jaron Grayer snagged an interception. The first of the two fumbles came in the Black Bears’ red zone, as Thompson kept the ball on a read-option run. Initially, fourth-year linebacker Sterling Sheffield crashed into the backfield, but Thompson was able to shake Sheffield off to avoid the sack. A swarm of Maine defenders came sprinting at Thompson, and second-year defensive back Erick Robertson found his mark in punching the ball out of Thompson’s hands, which was recovered by first-year defensive lineman Jahmel Wiley.
The second forced fumble and recovery for Maine came late in the third quarter, once again in the middle of a strong drive by Elon. Thompson took the snap out of the shotgun, completed his three step drop back, and proceeded to climb in the pocket to avoid defenders while waiting for one of his receivers to break coverage down field. Third-year defensive lineman Alejandro Oregon found himself in a mismatch against Elon’s third-year tight end Matt Foster on the backside block, and Oregon took advantage. Grabbing onto Foster with one arm, Oregon ran around the collapsing pocket and swatted the ball out of Thompson’s hand right as he began his throwing motion. Oregon recovered the fumble, and gave the Black Bears’ offense back the football with great field position.
While tallying an interception, Grayer ended up fumbling the ball on the return, and Elon recovered the fumble. The wild play kept Thompson and his offense stayed on the field, the Black Bears’ defense continued to apply pressure, eventually forcing fourth down. With under a minute left in the fourth quarter, Thompson dropped back to pass, and the Black Bears sent pressure. Sheffield found his mark, as he has all season for Maine in clutch moments, hitting Thompson’s arm as he released the ball, forcing an incompletion and turnover on downs.
The Black Bears stormed the field following the turnover, knowing well that Robinson would retake the field to kneel on consecutive downs to run out the game clock. Maine won by a final score of 27-26, claiming the CAA Championship trophy and finishing the year undefeated at home (4-0).
Maine’s championship team had eleven players take home hardware from the CAA All Conference first and second teams, announced on Tuesday, Nov. 20.
Making an appearance on the CAA first team all conference were third-year defensive lineman Kayon Whitaker, third-year defensive back Manny Patterson, and Sheffield. Edwards was also listed as first team, but for his exceptional skills as a kick returner.
Making an appearance on the CAA second team all-conference were fourth-year tight end Drew Belcher, second-year offensive lineman Liam Dobson, third-year defensive lineman Charles Mitchell, second-year linebacker Deshawn Stevens and special teams ace fourth-year Mozai Nelson. Edwards was included on the second team all-conference as well, this time for his talents at wide receiver.
Head Coach Joe Harasymiak, following in suit with his team, brought home the CAA Coach of the Year award.
The Black Bears will play host to the Jacksonville State University Gamecocks on Saturday, Dec. 1, in a favorable matchup for Maine in the second round of the football championship subdivision playoffs. Practicing in the same conditions they’ll eventually play in, the Black Bears will have a true home field advantage over the Gamecocks.