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Black Bears celebrate victory after winning back Brice-Cowell Musket. Photo Credit: Peter Buehner

Black Bears impress in season opener against nationally ranked Wildcats

The historic Brice Cowell Musket has returned to Black Bear Nation for the first time since October 2010, after a dominant performance in which the University of Maine’s football team (1-0) beat the University of New Hampshire Wildcats (0-1) by a final score of 35-7 on Thursday, Aug. 30.

With a strong performance to start the season, second-year starting quarterback Chris Ferguson put any doubts to rest that he would be unable to lead the Black Bears to success on the offensive side of the ball this season. The poise of Ferguson in the pocket, along with his accuracy and ability to complete all of his reads was too much for the Wildcats’ defenders as he carved them up for 21 completions on 31 attempts for 199 yards and two touchdowns. Regardless of the receiver Ferguson threw to, New Hampshire’s defense was unable to stop the aerial assault, as he completed passes to eight different receivers throughout the game.

Former quarterback, Drew Belcher, who converted to tight end this past off season, showed flexibility between positions, hauling in five catches along with throwing a 52-yard touchdown bomb on a trick play to Jaquan Blair, who led the Black Bears in receiving yards with 70 on the night.

Complementary to the passing game, the two-headed backfield composed of sophomore Joe Fitzpatrick, and first-year Ramon Jefferson were incredibly efficient, averaging 4.7 yards per carry and 6.2 yards per carry. Both running backs displayed incredible agility, vision and power. With only 28 seconds remaining in the first half, Jefferson’s 49-yard carry saw him break two tackles before finally being dragged down by Wildcats safety, Rick Ellison. The run by Jefferson set up the Black Bears offense inside the 11-yard line, where Ferguson proceeded to throw a back-shoulder fade into the end zone, in double coverage, to Earnest Edwards, who made an impressive catch and kept his feet in bounds for the touchdown.

Just before the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter, Fitzpatrick, on an equally impressive run, punched in a 14-yard score in the Wildcats’ red zone after hurdling a defender, icing away the game by making the final score 35-7. While the two combined for only 33-percent of the team’s total offense, their hard work between the tackles kept the Wildcats on their heels, allowing Ferguson to take advantage of one-on-one match ups on the outside with his receivers.

As a unit, the Black Bears’ offense appeared to be a well-oiled machine. By running a combination of jet sweeps, play-action passes, running back dives and other offensive concepts, the Black Bears made a statement showing their diverse offense can score both on the ground and through the air.

The offensive line created a fantastic pocket for Ferguson and created wide running lanes for both Fitzpatrick and Jefferson, giving up only one sack and losing only 21 yards on 38 rushing attempts, finishing with a net positive 203 rushing yards on the ground.

With a combination of one senior, three sophomores, and one junior on the offensive line, the unit appears to have a functional chemistry that will be a factor for the Black Bears all season. Starting right tackle, Cody Levy, will be the graduating senior, and his pass protection capabilities and run blocking dominance will be an influence on this up-and-coming offensive nucleus.

The most noticeable performance, however, came from the defensive side of the ball for the Black Bears. With multiple players having at least 2.0 tackles for loss, lead by senior linebacker Sterling Sheffield, who was named Co-Defensive Player of the Week by the Colonial Athletic Association after racking up 3.0 tackles for loss, a pass break up and 2.0 sacks. At a height of 6 feet, 2 inches, and weighing in at 245 pounds. Sheffield was causing havoc all night for the Wildcats, causing them to repeatedly double team him within their scheme. Both of Sheffield’s sacks came in the first quarter, including one on a long third-and-8 for the Wildcats, forcing a punt. The Black Bears’ defense looked mean, showing a formidable front seven that will be closely watched throughout the season, as they forced the Wildcats to finish with negative 15 rushing yards on the night, along with racking up a collective 6.0 sacks and 12.0 tackles for loss.

Unable to move the ball on the offensive end, the Wildcats’ special teams unit was often on the field. The special teams unit was equally as dysfunctional as their offense, with a bad snap sending the ball over punter/kicker Drew Sanborn’s head, resulting in a safety in the back of the Wildcats’ end zone midway through the second quarter.

After such a statement victory, one can only look to a player missing from the sideline on Thursday night. Jersey number 39, belonging to the late defensive back Darius Minor, wasn’t physically present with his teammates, but his presence was with them in spirit. Minor, 18, was an incoming first-year student at Maine who collapsed abruptly 15 minutes into a team workout during the off season and was unable to be revived by paramedics.

After the game, when asked in an interview by the University of Maine Athletics Department about how he felt about the victory over the Wildcats, Sheffield thanked God for his opportunity to be able to play the game of football, then stating “Long live Darius Minor, he passed away too young, but he was a great, great guy,” before going on to discuss the play of the Black Bears against the Wildcats.

As a team coming into the season after losing a teammate, the Black Bears gritted their teeth together and united as one. Their cohesiveness as an entire locker room, after going through such a traumatizing experience, shows the bond they have to each other on and off the field.

In the opening statements of the same post game interview with the Maine Athletics Department, head coach Joe Harasymiak spoke in admiration of his team. “They work harder than any other group I’ve ever been around. I guess I’m just the lucky one to be their coach.”

That hard work and dedication will be put to the test, as the Black Bears are on the road for games against Central Michigan University and Yale University. However, now battle-tested against eighth-place University of New Hampshire, the Black Bears have a head of steam as they begin their long slate of games on the road.


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