ORONO — Offensive balance and big plays on defense.
That was a winning combination Saturday afternoon for the University of Maine football team.
The Black Bears kept Delaware guessing with a potent run-pass blend and made four interceptions while knocking off the fifth-ranked Blue Hens 31-17 at chilly, damp Alfond Stadium.
“It feels great,” said senior defensive tackle Raibonne Charles of Windham, who made five tackles, including two sacks.
“We’re not going to start feeling too good, because we’ve got seven games left and each week is going to be different.”
The victory was the 100th for 19th-year UMaine head coach Jack Cosgrove, who downplayed the accomplishment with a sense of perspective.
“This has never been about me, it’s about the young men that play here,” said Cosgrove, who had three wins taken away as the result of NCAA sanctions in 1993, his first season.
“I’m grateful for the longevity, because there’s not many guys that have 100 wins and more losses than that as well,” he added.
The defense laid the foundation for Saturday’s effort. The Bears held the Blue Hens to 278 total yards and intercepted junior quarterback Tim Donnelly four times.
UMaine also contained talented tailback Andrew Pierce, who rushed for 120 yards on 24 carries and caught eight passes for 34 yards.
Cosgrove said the timing of UMaine’s bye week and the extra week of preparation for Delaware paid dividends in containing the Hens.
“I think we bailed ourselves out with the turnovers,” Cosgrove said. “We had four interceptions.”
UMaine (3-1) opened its Colonial Athletic Association schedule with a victory that should put the Bears in the early conversation amidst a conference marked by parity.
A determined group of seniors, led by tailback Pushaun Brown, quarterback Warren Smith, safeties Jerron McMillan and Trevor Coston and linebacker Vinson Givans, demonstrated its collective resolve.
UMaine shook off a first half marred by two turnovers — Smith’s first two interceptions of the season. However, the Bears contained Delaware (3-1, 1-1 CAA) with opportunistic defense and burned the Blue Hens for some momentum-building plays that led to touchdowns.
Trailing 17-14, the Bears caught the Delaware secondary napping on the last play of the third quarter. With the wind at his back, Smith faked an inside handoff, dropped back and lofted a high pass downfield.
Wide receiver Derek Session (4 catches, 111 yards) was all alone behind the defense when he made a stumbling catch and went down at the UD 18.
“My thoughts were to make the catch first,” Session said. “I felt if I would have tried a little more to keep my feet, I might have dropped the ball.”
One play after the 56-yard hookup, Brown (23 carries, 193 yards, 3 TDs) raced around right end, untouched and into the end zone, to give UMaine the lead for good (21-17) six seconds into the fourth quarter.
“Bang, like that we took the lead and we took control of the game after that,” Cosgrove said.
UMaine padded its lead almost seven minutes later after linebacker Vinson Givans (7 tackles) made a leaping interception at the UM 18 to halt a Delaware threat.
On first down, Brown shook off a hit at the line of scrimmage and burst up the middle on his way to a 70-yard jaunt to the UD 5. One play later, he bulled his way in from five yards out and Brian Harvey’s PAT made it 28-17 with 8:01 left.
It was the sixth consecutive 100-yard rushing effort by Brown against FCS competition.
“That’s the first thing we said when we put the film on, we’ve got to be able to run the ball against these guys,” Brown said.
“Once we got the run game going, that opened up a lot of our offense,” he added.
The run success put Smith and his receivers in position to make plays.
Smith completed 18 of 27 passes for 264 yards and a score, but threw his first two interceptions of the season (by Jessel Curry and Travis Hawkins) in the first half.
UMaine executed more crisply in the second half and kept the Blue Hens off balance.
“I thought we did a great job up front, protecting-wise, running the football,” Smith said. “They’ve got to stop the run first, then we hit them with play action over the top.”
That dynamic worked on the Bears’ first possession of the second half, with Delaware up 10-7. Smith hit Justin Perillo (4 catches, 52 yards) for a 28-yard completion on the third play, then hit another one one play later.
This time wide receiver Damarr Aultman slid under the coverage from left to right, caught a Smith pass in stride and raced into the end zone to complete a 37-yard TD hookup.
Delaware regained the momentum with an 11-play, 74-yard march. Pierce finished it off with a 13-yard TD run that put the Blue Hens in front 17-14 with 3:40 left in the third.
However, Delaware managed only two first downs the rest of the way and turned it over twice.
“We were able to keep trust in our game plan and keep doing what we needed to do and it ended up working out,” Charles said.
Jerron McMillian (7 tackles), Trevor Coston (5) and Darlos James (7) each had an interception for UMaine.
The Bears jumped in front when Brown capped an 89-yard drive with a 26-yard scoring run with 6:13 left in the first quarter.
Delware took advantage of field position and went 59 yards on 10 plays, scoring on a 16-yard throw from Donnelly to Colin Naugle 1:02 into the second quarter. The Hens made it 10-7 when Curry intercepted Smith at the UM 30 to set up Sean Baner’s 46-yard field goal 2:25 later.