ORONO — The University of Maine football team appears to be headed for the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
The only questions that remain are: Will the Black Bears win a share of the Colonial Athletic Association title and/or will UMaine be chosen to host a first- or second-round game?
Coach Jack Cosgrove’s 13th-ranked Black Bears polished their postseason resume Saturday afternoon, rallying to score 22 unanswered points and pull out a 32-21 victory over the University of Massachusetts at chilly Alfond Stadium.
UMaine takes an 8-2 record and a 6-1 CAA mark into Saturday’s regular-season finale against border rival New Hampshire (7-3, 5-2 CAA), which dropped a 56-42 decision Saturday at Towson (8-2, 6-1 CAA).
“There’s obviously a sense of accomplishment to be 6-1 and 8-2,” Cosgrove said. “Let’s face it, guys, that doesn’t happen a lot, especially here in Orono, Maine.”
Cosgrove did not speak directly to UMaine’s playoff possibilities, other than to highlight the importance of the upcoming game at UNH.
“We get the (Brice-Cowell) Musket, even better things will happen,” he said, referring to the trophy that goes to the winner of the annual rivalry.
UMaine athletic director Steve Abbott said UMaine has submitted a bid to host early-round FCS playoff games.
Towson would clinch the CAA’s automatic NCAA playoff berth with a win Saturday at Rhode Island.
Against UMass, it was the defense that provided the spark. The unit forced three second-half turnovers that UMaine converted into 22 points and a victory.
The Bears had two fumble recoveries for touchdowns.
“We’re always confident in our defense to go out there and make plays,” said senior linebacker Vinson Givans, who paced the Bears with 12 tackles.
The UMaine defense swung the momentum in the Bears’ favor with 30 seconds left in the third quarter. Defensive end Erwin Roach sacked UMass quarterback Raymond Pendergast, who fumbled, and linebacker Troy Russell snared the ball out of the air and raced 60 yards for a score.
“We just had to have something happen and the thing that happened, obviously, was Troy Russell’s return,” Cosgrove said.
UMaine still trailed 21-19 after Warren Smith’s conversion pass failed, but the Bears were back in the game on the scoreboard and emotionally.
The Minutemen (5-5) quickly drove to the UMaine 27-yard line, but end Craig Capella batted down a fourth-down pass by Pendergast, who was replacing the injured Nos. 1 and 2 QBs.
The hosts marched down the field and used up nearly 7 1/2 minutes, but did not convert when Brian Harvey’s 29-yard field goal missed right with 5:28 left.
“I’ve never seen him kick a ball that bad. Never,” Cosgrove said.
Two plays later, end Mike Cole put a hit on Pendergast, who was intercepted by linebacker Arron Achey at the 28-yard line for a return to the 14.
“I was lucky enough to be at the right spot at the right time,” said Achey.
The Bears scored on Smith’s 6-yard, third-down run to make it 25-21 with 3:26 to play.
“That’s how we won the football game,” Cosgrove said. “Our defense created the opportunities, a short field, and our guys responded.”
The teams then traded possessions with Jordan Waxman sticking a 49-yard punt at the UMass 1-yard line with 1:01 left.
On UMass’ next play, junior linebacker Troy Russell hit Pendergast and forced a fumble that was recovered for a touchdown in the end zone by Cole, putting the game out of reach.
“We wanted to take advantage of the great kick by ‘Wax,’” Givans said. “At first we were going to go ‘stack victory’ and play the deep balls, but they were on the 1, so why not (go after them)?”
Achey, a redshirt freshman, registered a team-leading 12 tackles and senior linebacker Vinson Givans posted 11 to pace the UMaine defense, which came up with four turnovers in the contest.
Senior tailback Pushaun Brown returned after missing the Towson game with an injury to rush for a game-high 144 yards on 26 carries, including a 12-yard scoring run in the second quarter.
Senior quarterback Warren Smith completed 14 of 25 passes for 184 yards. He was intercepted once and sacked once.
“Obviously, it wasn’t our best performance offensively,” Smith said. “I thought we moved the ball well. When we got down in the (red zone), we just didn’t finish the drive.”
The Bears struggled a bit without junior wideout Maurice McDonald (foot injury), but Art Williams made four catches for 73 yards and Damarr Aultmann three for 64 yards.
UMass got a solid effort from Pendergast, who was 19-for-31 passing with 237 yards, a TD and an interception.
Julian Talley (6 rec. 107 yds.O) and Tom Gilson (6-71) headed the receiving corps, while senior tailback Jonathan Hernandez carried 31 times for 91 yards, including a 2-yard TD run in the second quarter.
Perry McIntyre racked up 15 tackles to lead the Minutemen.
The Bears took a 3-0 lead on Harvey’s 22-yard field goal midway through the first quarter. UMaine failed to extend the lead when Harvey missed a 34-yard field goal.
UMass took a 7-3 lead on Pendergast’s 14-yard TD toss to Jesse Julmisted, but the Bears answered as a diving, 35-yard catch by Williams led to Brown’s 12-yard scoring run.
UMass then missed the first of two field-goal tries, but Julmiste’s blocked punt set up the Minutmen for Hernandez’s 2-yard TD run that made it 14-10 UMass with 16 seconds left in the first half.
UMass extended the lead when Shane Viveiros returned an interception 26 yards for a score 1:12 into the second half. However, the Minutmen came up empty on a six-minute, 50-yard drive when Yelovich missed leff on a 30-yard field-goal try.
A 40-yard completion from Smith to Aultmann helped UMaine respond on Harvey’s 30-yard field goal that made it 21-13 late in the third.