ORONO, Maine — It was one small step for Maine. One giant leap for Maine-kind.
Senior tri-captain Mike Brusko referenced Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon Saturday after the University of Maine football team earned its biggest win of the season.
The Black Bears played with poise and persistence, forcing six turnovers and playing a solid second half to earn a 19-9 Colonial Athletic Association victory over No. 19 Massachusetts at Alfond Stadium.
UMaine appears to be learning how to win.
“Everybody played a huge part in it,” Brusko said. “It took a lot for the older guys [to show] leadership, and it took a lot for the younger guys to understand it and embrace it and make it happen.”
Coach Jack Cosgrove’s Bears (4-4, 3-2 CAA) beat the Minutemen (4-4, 2-3 CAA) for the second straight year.
UMaine didn’t allow its halftime lead, albeit tenuous at 10-7, to slip away this time around.
The Bears twice extended their advantage in the second half and the defense pitched a shutout in the last 30 minutes.
“I’m just really pleased for the guys, a great effort across the board,” said Cosgrove, whose team was coming off a bye week.
“We persevered. We matured and grew today and got a nice win for ourselves,” he added.
Turnovers were a critical factor. Sophomore linebacker Donte Dennis (11 tackles, fumble recover) made two of UMaine’s four interceptions against two quarterbacks.
“To come out with the interceptions helped us a lot,” Dennis said. “There were times our back was against the wall, somebody needed to make a play and we just stepped up.”
Classmate Vinson Givans came up with a career-best 12 tackles, while Trevor Coston and Jerron McMillian had one interception each.
The Bears also limited UMass to 82 rushing yards.
UMaine appeared to be headed for the locker room trailing at halftime for the first time this season, but Dennis picked off Kyle Havens’ pass in UMass territory with 2:55 left.
UMaine responded with an eight-play, 46-yard drive. The key play was a 26-yard toss from Warren Smith to Jeremy Kelley for a UMaine first down.
Three plays later, Ty Jones caught a low fade pass from Smith in the end zone to put the Bears on top. Jordan Waxman’s PAT made it 10-7 with 1:04 to play in the half.
“I was so happy we got in the end zone. [I was] cheering on the offense the whole drive, and when they scored I was like, yes!” Dennis said.
At halftime, Brusko reminded the team of its responsibility to seize the moment.
“Today at halftime he said it again, we’ve got to grow up,” said Smith, who was 19-for-35 passing with 226 yards, a TD and an interception. “I think we responded well to that and I think we did as a team today in the second half — on all phases of the game, too.”
The Bears extended their lead to 13-7 in the third, but not without controversy. UMaine had an apparent TD negated when Brusko took a shotgun snap and dipped down as if he were going to run with the ball.
He dropped back and threw to Landis Williams in the end zone, but referee Jeff Grey ruled Brusko had faked “taking a knee,” thus negating the play.
Cosgrove said in such a case, the Bears should have been penalized 15 yards for the perceived “deception.”
Two plays later, Jordan Waxman kicked a 32-yard field goal into the wind.
“We didn’t get another touchdown, but we got points,” Cosgrove said. “It was very important, a good boost.”
The Bears added insurance midway through the fourth. Smith completed five straight passes for first downs, then scooted 5 yards for a score to make it 19-7 with 8:46 to play.
UMass hung around when Bailey intercepted the conversion pass and ran 100 yards to give the visitors two points.
However, UMaine got interceptions from Dennis, Coston and McMillian on UMass’s last three possessions to preserve the victory.
Maine took a 3-0 lead on its first possession with Waxman’s 25-yard field goal.
UMass got on the scoreboard with a 77-yard, second-quarter drive into the wind. Havens completed two third-down throws to set up Jonathan Hernandez’s 1-yard TD run as the Minutemen went on top 7-3 with 3:40 left in the half.
Tyler Holmes paced UMass with 16 tackles and Eric Dickson came up with 14.