ORONO, Maine — The University of Maine scheduled St. Cloud State out of desperation, to be able to play its football home opener.
It was the Black Bears who may have felt a bit of desperation — on the field — in Thursday night’s season opener against the Division II Huskies.
In a game that unexpectedly featured playoff-like suspense, St. Cloud quarterback Mitch Watkins’ fourth-down pass fell incomplete in the back of the end zone in overtime as the Black Bears escaped with a 34-27 victory in front of 5,674 fans at Alfond Stadium.
Coach Jack Cosgrove’s UMaine team outlasted a formidable St. Cloud (Minn.) squad that demonstrated the Bears have many areas to work on heading into their Colonial Athletic Association opener at Northeastern.
“They [St. Cloud] played very, very well,” Cosgrove said. “I’m not going to say anything to take away from their effort. They very easily could have, should have, won this football game.
“There’s nothing to be said here about us not showing up to play. We didn’t disrepect them,” Cosgrove added.
In a game that featured seven lead changes, UMaine’s ability to pound the football on the ground in the second half eventually gave it the upper hand.
“We knew we were going for two if we happened to score the last one. We weren’t going to put our defense back on the field,” said St. Cloud State coach Scott Underwood.
“I don’t think we had enough in the tank to probably go another series and feel like we could stop them,” he added. “That was a key.”
After losing the coin toss UMaine got on the scoreboard first in overtime — during which both teams get equal scoring chances from the opponent’s 25-yard line.
Keeping the ball on the ground. UMaine quarterback Mike Brusko’s 6-yard run on third down set up his 1-yard quarterback sneak on the next play to provide the winning margin.
St. Cloud managed one first down in the extra period, but couldn’t convert on its second series that began at the 12-yard line.
The Huskies (1-1) wound up outgaining the Bears 362 yards to 346. Watkins completed 22 of 36 passes for 222 yards and one touchdown without an interception.
Fred Williams reeled in 15 catches for 171 yards, including a 23-yard TD pass in the fourth quarter, while tailback Brandon Geiss netted 104 yards and two scores on 21 carries.
Derek Session spearheaded the UMaine offense with 124 yards (one TD) on 22 carries. Brusko added 64 yards on 22 tries and completed nine of 13 passes for 101 yards with one interception.
Senior linebacker Brandon McLaughlin led the Bears’ defense with a game-high 13 tackles and a forced fumble. Linebacker Donte Dennis added 10 tackles.
Brian Kampa’s 11 tackles paced St. Cloud.
The Huskies had regained the lead in the third quarter, mixing the run and pass during a 10-play, 80-yard march. Watkins completed four passes for 51 yards to set up Geiss’s 6-yard run up the gut.
Justin Delgado’s PAT made it 17-13 St. Cloud with 2:04 remaining in the third quarter.
UMaine responded, using a workmanlike ground assault to regain the upper hand. Session carried five times for 28 yards to set up Brusko’s 2-yard plunge with 11:38 left.
Undaunted, St. Cloud stormed back in front. The Huskies again showed a good blend as a 28-yard burst off right tackle by Geiss preceded a 23-yard quick screen from Watkins to Williams that went for a touchdown.
Delgado’s kick gave St. Cloud a 24-20 edge with 8:42 to play.
The Bears went back on the offensive and refused to be denied. Session lugged the ball five more times, capping off an 80-yard scoring drive with a 10-yard run that put the hosts ahead 27-24 with 1:50 remaining.
That gave St. Cloud another opportunity with the football. And it capitalized.
Watkins engineered a 10-play, 38-yard drive to the Bears’ 13 and Tyler Aldridge drilled a 30-yard field goal with six seconds left, knotting the score at 27.
The Bears ended the first half with a flourish as Jordan Waxman capped a two-minute drill with a 39-yard field goal as time expired.
The 56-yard drive nearly ended when Brusko was sacked at the 22-yard line, but UMaine rushed its field-goal team onto the field and snapped the ball with about five seconds left. Waxman’s low liner had plenty of distance.
The score was the second straight field goal of the quarter for Waxman, whose 30-yarder had tied the game at 10-10 with 4:05 left.
Brusko executed the short passing game effectively on the possession, completing five throws for 48 yards.
St. Cloud State had marched 70 yards on 12 plays on its second possession, which culminated in Aldridge’s 27-yard field goal.
The Bears immediately regained the momentum as junior wide receiver Des Randall took the ensuing kickoff, burst through the middle and cut wide to the left on his way to an 80-yard TD return. Waxman’s PAT made it 10-3 with 4:27 left in the first quarter.
The Huskies regained the lead early in the second quarter, capitalizing on an apparent pass by Brusko that was ruled a fumble and recovered on the UM 33.
St. Cloud needed only six plays to score on Brandon Geiss’s 8-yard run up the middle. The visitors went on top 10-7 with 13:14 to play in the half.
UMaine’s first field goal was set up when Brandon McLaughlin sacked St. Cloud quarterback Mitch Watkins, who fumbled at the Huskies’ 40.
St. Cloud posted a 7 1/2-minute advantage in time of possession in the first half.