CASTINE, Maine — A couple weeks ago, Plymouth State University running back Jeff Mack met the most famous PSU alumnus in Panthers football history.
Former Heisman Trophy candidate Joe Dudek offered Mack some sage advice.
“He just told me to have fun with this, and that I’d never forget these moments,” said the fifth-year senior.
Well, it’ll be hard for Mack — or any member of the Maine Maritime Academy defensive unit — to forget his 139-yard, two-touchdown rushing effort on a soggy Ritchie Field in Saturday’s New England Football Conference title game.
The nation’s No. 8 rusher averaged 4.5 yards per carry over 31 carries to earn game MVP honors and help lead his Panthers to a resounding 46-16 victory over the Mariners and an NCAA Division III playoff spot.
Even the No. 2-ranked rushing team in the country couldn’t overcome five fumbles, all of which were recovered by the Panthers and three of which were cashed in for 19 points. The end result was 32 unanswered points by PSU after both teams scored on their first two possessions.
“Turnovers killed us, and they just played better than we did,” said MMA coach Chris McKenney. “We were moving the ball, but we turned the ball over three straight times and it’s hard to overcome that.”
It took the 10-1 Panthers five plays, 61 yards and three minutes to score the game’s first points on a 39-yard touchdown run by quarterback John DeMarco. The Mariners, who finished 7-4, responded with a seven-play, 64-yard TD drive capped by Jim Bower’s 14-yard run into the end zone and a two-point conversion rush by Jonathan Farrin.
The Panthers then went 62 yards in four plays to go up 14-8, but this time, the Mariners didn’t have an immediate answer as they fumbled and the Panthers recovered at their own 45. MMA’s defense had an answer, however, as the Mariners stuffed the Panthers on fourth-and-two at the MMA 47 to get the ball back.
Nine plays later, Nick Bourassa of Jay scored on a 10-yard TD run, and backup quarterback Matt Rende ran off right tackle for a two-point conversion to put MMA up 16-14 with 13:11 left in the half.
And then it all went downhill quickly for the Mariners.
After a 43-yard kickoff return, the Panthers marched 22 yards in six plays to make it 20-16. A kickoff and two plays later, Rende fumbled and the Panthers recovered at the MMA 45. Nine plays later, it was 27-16.
The Mariners’ third fumble came six seconds later, and PSU turned that into a 10-play, 32-yard drive ending in a 6-yard TD run by DeMarco on a broken play with 24 seconds left. The Panthers took a 33-16 half-time lead and didn’t look back.
“We just tried to get a body on a body up front and string things out,” said PSU coach Paul Castonia about slowing down MMA’s option attack. “Obviously, the guy who makes that option attack go is their fullback and we wanted to make sure we contained him.”
Mission accomplished. Bower, the third-ranked rusher in NCAA Division III, was held to a season-low 46 yards on 12 carries. His team was held 167 yards below its per-game rushing average and 20 points below its scoring average.
Travis Fergola led MMA’s defense with 13 tackles. Cody Andrews of Holden, Wade Mondoux, Joel Chadbourne and Chris Kates each had nine.
“I’m proud of these guys,” said McKenney. “They did a heck of a job. We accomplished one of our big goals, which was getting to this game. We’ll learn from it, try to get better, and get back here next year.”