ORONO, Maine — The University of Maine football team appeared to be in trouble Saturday afternoon.
First, Stony Brook relied on its power-based run offense to pound the ball at the heart of the Black Bears defense, delivering repeated blows that were taking a cumulative effect.
And the Seawolves’ hard-hitting defense, which had allowed 13 first-half points, shut down the Black Bears, limiting them to six plays and three net yards in the third quarter.
“They made a move in the second half to go to the power game, got real physical with us, got a lead and really challenged our football team,” said UMaine head coach Jack Cosgrove.
UMaine, which had been tested a handful of times this season, made a decisive and game-changing response.
The eighth-ranked Black Bears rallied behind senior quarterback Marcus Wasilewski with a quick 91-yard touchdown drive to regain the lead, then made two defensive stops down the stretch to secure a 19-14 Colonial Athletic Association victory at Alfond Stadium.
“We weren’t moving it an inch and we went 91 yards in like two minutes,” Cosgrove said of the drive, which lasted 1:57.
Wasilewski, who took a beating under heavy pressure from the Stony Brook pass rush, said the Bears have been conditioned to handle adversity.
“It’s part of the league that we’re in, the CAA,” Wasilewski said. “Every game that you’re going to play in this conference can go down to the wire.”
UMaine (8-1, 5-0 CAA) secured its fifth consecutive victory to hang onto first place in the conference and improve its place in the national rankings.
Only three minutes after he was helped off the field after suffering a knee injury while being sacked for the sixth time, Wasilewski engineered the quick-striking, game-winning drive.
He completed four big passes on the march — for 14, 18, 34 and 24 yards — the last a scoring toss to classmate John Ebeling. The Black Bears executed when they needed it most.
“That’s the mark of a good football team, [to have] confidence in your quarterback, confidence in their playmakers, and they got their playmakers the ball,” said Seawolves coach Chuck Priore.
Wasilewski said UMaine was able to focus on the task at hand, rather than dwelling on its previous struggles.
“We always stress our toughness, both physical and mental,” Wasilewski said, “and I think that was a time where we took our mental toughness and said, alright, we’re down, but we’ve still got to play the game; we’ve got to win the game. We were fortunate enough to have a great drive and have some guys make great plays.”
Cosgrove admitted after the game that the scenario was one that would have spelled defeat for many previous UMaine teams. This particular group has developed resilience.
He credited much of the Bears’ poise under pressure to the experience and leadership of the seniors.
“We’ve got a ton of seniors like these guys [postgame interviewees Wasilewski, Ebeling, MIke Cole and Troy Eastman] and they were forced by Stony Brook to find out a little more about ourselves [Saturday],” he said.
Wasilewski passed for 188 yards and a touchdown despite being under constant pressure. And the Bears have pulled out other tight games at Richmond and Villanova, so they didn’t come unglued against Stony Brook.
“If you panic, you’re not going to settle in and be able to make big plays,” Wasilewski said.
“I think it comes with the experience of the group of seniors that are leading on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball,” he added.
Next up for UMaine is a Saturday road game against the University at Albany (1-8, 0-5 CAA).
Bears safety Jamal Clay made be sidelined for a while after suffering a hand injury during Saturday’s game.
The senior was hurt late in the first half and did not return to action. He was seen later Saturday wearing a splint on the fingers of his right hand.
Clay is backed up by classmate Lamar Fitzgerald, who made five tackles against Stony Brook.
Wasilewski twisted his left knee while being mauled by 275-pound Seawolves defensive tackle Dante Allen early in the fourth quarter. He had the leg evaluated by the athletic training staff and a team doctor and was cleared to go back into the game.
“I just tweaked my knee up a little bit,” Wasilewski said. “We’re fine, they just wanted to check it out and make sure everything was fine. I came back in and we were ready to go.”
UMaine place-kicker Sean Decloux continues to be an important weapon for the UMaine offense.
The sophomore from Ottawa, Ontario, converted first-half field goals of 33 and 38 yards to stake the Bears to an early 6-0 lead against SBU.
Decloux has been crucial to the cause in the last two games, which were decided by two and five points, respectively. He kicked three field goals, including a career-best 42-yarder Oct. 26 at Villanova.
Decloux has now made seven straight kicks after missing both attempts Sept. 21 at Northwestern.