The University of Maine Black Bears hosted the Jacksonville State University Gamecocks for the second round of the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) playoffs. The Black Bears won 55-27 on one of their best performances this season.
The contest, only the second ever home playoff game in school history, showed the team’s cohesiveness and dedication throughout the season. At a pep rally put on by the university on Thursday, Nov. 29, fourth-year defensive back Jeffrey DeVaughn reflected on one of the main driving forces for the team this season.
“We lost one of our teammates earlier this year, the tragic part is he was only 18 years-old.” Devaughn said. “He has been with us all season, through the ups and downs, we carry him with us everywhere, to road games and home games, everywhere. I know he is here with us everyday. This is very, very important to me because I am 23 and I played my five years of football here, he didn’t play one snap, one practice. I tell my teammates everyday to take no opportunities for granted, even in life.”
DeVaughn’s words rang true to his teammates, and the Black Bears efforts continued to be rewarded.
Maine’s dynamic backfield, composed of second-year quarterback Chris Ferguson and first-year running back Ramon Jefferson, spearheaded the offensive efforts for the Black Bears. Jefferson amassed 186 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries, gashing the Gamecocks’ front seven. Second-year running back Joe Fitzpatrick, giving Jefferson a break in certain offensive formations, carried the ball seven times for 50 yards.
With the Black Bears’ rushing attack bearing the load of carrying the offense down the field, Ferguson completed 14 passes on his 26 dropbacks, throwing for 159 yards and five touchdowns. Anchoring the incredible performance through the air and on the ground, the Black Bears offensive line won the battle in the trenches, only allowing Ferguson to be sacked once on the day.
Jacksonville, winning the coin toss, elected to kickoff to Maine. Gamecocks’ Head Coach John Grass, aware of Maine’s third-year return specialist Earnest Edwards’ ability to score, ordered fourth-year kicker Cade Stinnett to squib the kickoff, preventing Edwards from getting the ball in his hands. Following a short drive that resulted in a Maine punt, the Gamecocks’ offense came out onto the field.
Jacksonville’s second-year starting quarterback Zerrick Cooper fared poorly against the aggressive “Black Hole” defense throughout the game, completing 19 of 44 passing attempts for 365 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Right out of the gate, the Gamecocks’ offense ran into trouble. On back to back rushing attempts, Cooper handed the ball off to second-year running back Jaelen Greene, who was stopped in the backfield for a loss. Facing third down with 13 yards to gain for the first down, Cooper dropped back to pass, only to be taken down by third-year defensive lineman Kayon Whitaker. Whitaker forced Cooper to fumble the ball in the process, which was recovered by first-year defensive lineman Jamehl Wiley on Jacksonville’s three-yard line.
Handed fantastic field position, Ferguson stepped back onto the field and found third year wide receiver Jaquan Blair for the 4-yard touchdown, giving the Black Bears a 7-0 lead following the chip shot extra point from second-year kicker Kenny Doak.
Jacksonville’s ensuing drive had hope, following a free first down thanks to a roughing the passer penalty against Maine, until back to back rushing attempts by Jacksonville resulted in a combined 7-yard loss. Faced with third-and-17, Cooper kept the ball and rushed for six yards, forcing the Gamecocks’ punting unit to send the ball back to the Black Bears.
Paired with strong rushes by Jefferson, Ferguson picked apart the Gamecocks’ secondary, finding fourth-year tight end Julian Dunn for a 20 yard completion, and followed that up by uncorking a 41-yard bomb down the sideline to Edwards, who caught the ball and dove in for the score. Following another extra point from Doak, the Black Bears led 14-0 with five minutes left to play in the first quarter.
Following a strong return by Greene, Cooper and the Gamecocks’ offense set up shop on their own 38-yard line. With two successful rushing attempts from first-year running back Michael Matthews, paired with an incomplete pass from Cooper, the Gamecocks faced a fourth-and-1 situation on their own 47-yard line. Grass kept his offense on the field, having fourth-year running back Leander Burrowes take the direct shotgun snap in the heavy set package, second-year linebacker Deshawn Stevens and DeVaughn met Burrowes in the backfield, forcing a turnover on downs.
Ferguson and the Black Bears’ offense marched back onto the field once more, kicking off the drive with a 20-yard rush by fourth-year wide receiver Micah Wright on the sweep. Eventually facing third-and-11, an incompletion from Ferguson was negated by defensive pass interference, giving the Black Bears a first-and-10 on the Gamecocks’ 13-yard line. Jefferson punched the ball ahead for a nine yard gain, and on fourth-and-1 Ferguson found Edwards once again, and Maine held the 21-0 lead before the first quarter had even ended.
Cooper and the Gamecocks’ offense came back onto the field, and immediately changed up their offensive tempo. Cooper hit Greene for a 42-yard gain, and on the following snap found third-year wide receiver Jamari Hester for the 36-yard touchdown, on a drive that lasted 30 seconds.
Following a short drive that resulted in a punt for Maine, Cooper ran back onto the field with his offense and connected with Hester once more, who took off down the sideline for the 70-yard score. Maine’s massive lead had been diminished even faster than it had been built.
Ferguson and the Black Bears’ offense, starting their drive at their own 27-yard line, and began to dissect the Gamecocks through the air and on the ground once more. Ferguson hit Blair for an 11-yard gain, with Jefferson followed up with a 42-yard scamper up to the Gamecocks’ 20-yard line. Ferguson threw up the ball in the left corner of the end zone, and Wright came down with the 50/50 ball for the score.
The Black Bears scored twice more before the end of the first half, running away with the score at 42-14. The second half of play saw both offensive units slow down, and the Black Bears stormed off the field as the play clock expired with the 55-27 victory over the Gamecocks.
Maine, now ranked seventh out of the eight remaining teams, will travel to Utah to take on the third seeded Weber State University Wildcats on Friday, Dec. 7 at 8 p.m., which will be shown on ESPN 2.