AMHERST, Mass. — Warren McGuirk Stadium has been the land of broken dreams over the years for the University of Maine football team.
Saturday afternoon, the University of Massachusetts’ FieldTurf was instead a field of dreams for the Black Bears.
Norman Smith intercepted Liam Coen’s “Hail Mary” pass at the 5-yard line on the final play of the game as UMaine held on for a 21-20 Colonial Athletic Association football victory over No. 13 Massachusetts.
“There were a lot of long seconds during the course of the game, a lot of big downs, big plays for this football team to go through. It’s a tribute to them,” said UMaine head coach Jack Cosgrove.
The Black Bears (7-3, 4-2 CAA) won their fifth consecutive contest, keeping their post-season hopes intact by surviv-ing a determined, second-half rally by the Minutemen (6-4).
“It’s a feeling that I don’t think many of us have felt since we’ve been here,” Brusko said. “We know that it’s down to a two-game season now and we control our own destiny.”
UMass (3-3 CAA) scored 20 second-half points, erasing a 14-0 deficit on its first two possessions of the third quarter. UMaine responded with a critical fourth-quarter score, only to have the Minutemen answer.
The Bears prevailed after Armando Cuko’s potential game-tying PAT kick in a steady rain ricocheted off the right upright with 11:39 to play.
In 2006, UMaine’s playoff hopes had been dashed on a missed PAT with 1:44 left that would have forced overtime.
“That seems to be the theme lately for the games here,” Cosgrove offered.
UMaine made a handful of clutch defensive plays — including interceptions by Andrew Downey, Lamir Whetstone and Smith — down the stretch to come out on top.
“To get a win on their field in a very critical game for both programs is richly rewarding for all of us,” Cosgrove said.
The Bears’ old-fashioned smash-mouth run game carried them to victory. They amassed 298 rushing yards behind a versatile group of running backs led by fullback Jared Turcotte of Lewiston (13 carries, 83 yards, one touchdown).
Tailbacks Derek Session (16-76-1), Jhamal Fluellen (10-74-1) and Pushaun Brown (6-52-0) also flourished behind a stout offensive line made up of center Ryan Canary, tackles Tyler Eastman of Old Town and Chris Arnao, and guards Matt Barber and Steve Shea of Corinna.
“We were basically playing a one-game season, so I was happy we all came out fired up,” Canary said.
With junior quarterback Mike Brusko at the helm, UMaine kept the football for 40 minutes, 8 seconds, more than twice as long as UMass.
The Bears appeared to have the game sewed up after Whetstone’s second interception of the game with 1:37 left. However, UMaine couldn’t run out the clock after calling timeout with seven seconds to play and having Brusko run around.
The clock never started and officials ruled that two seconds remained. That gave UMass and Coen one last shot from their own 48-yard line.
“A ton of relief,” Cosgrove said of watching the last play.
UMaine struggled to ice the game after an acrobatic interception by Downey gave UM the ball at the UMass 33. A personal foul against Canary took UMaine from a third-and-one to a third-and-16.
The Bears came up short on a fourth-and-three run by Fluellen with 2:26 left.
“It’s just a stupid thing I did, so I really don’t want to talk about it,” Canary said. “I’m going to cry.”
However, Whetstone’s first interception got the ball back for UMaine at the 1:37 mark.
UMass had a chance to tie it when Jeremy Horne went 58 yards with a TD toss from QB Liam Coen (15-for-33, 200 yds., 2 TDs) with 11:39 to play — one play after Turcotte’s 3-yard TD gave UMaine the lead.
Cuko, who had made his first 38 PATs this season, missed.
UMaine dominated with back-to-back, first-half scoring drives — a 14-play, 95-yard march and a 12-play, 75-yarder.
UMaine ran 26 plays, 24 runs, netting 6.8 yards per carry while consuming nearly 15 minutes of game clock.
“Not many offenses can run the ball like that and in order to [do so], you have to have a very strong and intelligent offensive line to make calls and execute calls as they’re made,” Turcotte said. “They did today what they’ve been doing all season.”
UMass scored on its first two possessions of the second half to get even late in the third.
Coen was intercepted four times. He hadn’t been picked off in 74 attempts since Oct. 11.
UMaine returns to action Saturday at Rhode Island.