RICHMOND, Va. — The University of Maine football team took a thrill-packed ride on an emotional roller coaster on Saturday afternoon.
There were exhilarating highs and lagging lows, but before it was over, the Black Bears rolled into the locker room having enjoyed the ride.
Lamar Fitzgerald intercepted University of Richmond quarterback Michael Strauss in the end zone with 21 seconds left as the resilient Black Bears secured a 28-21 victory over the 20th-ranked Spiders in the teams’ Colonial Athletic Association opener at Robins Stadium.
UMaine (4-1) overcame two deflating interceptions in the end zone and further injury woes to pull out a hard-fought road win.
The Bears prevailed thanks to a handful of momentum-building offensive plays and a solid all-around performance by an opportunistic defense.
“That’s a mantra we live by, to get to the fourth quarter with a chance to win,” coach Jack Cosgrove said. “We got that today, even though we seemed hard-pressed to keep up with some things and it looked like it might get away from us.”
UMaine scored the go-ahead touchdown after Richmond (2-3) marched down the field and tied the game with 6:02 remaining. It came on a 4-yard toss from Strauss (31-for-45, 333 yards, 2 TDs, 3 INTs) to Stephen Barnette and a two-point conversion pass to Ben Edwards (14 catches, 126 yards).
The Bears went into quick-strike mode as Marcus Wasilewski (26-for-34, 293 yds., 2 TDs, 2 INTs) completed two passes to John Ebeling. On the next play, wideout Art Williams took a short throw on the right side, made a defender miss, shook off a hit and bolted 49 yards for the go-ahead score.
Sean Decloux’s PAT kick deflected off the left upright and through to make it 28-21 with 5:16 to play.
“Artie coming in there like that, sparking our offense, that’s what he does,” Wasilewski said.
“It was a game-changer. It won the game for us, just a heck of a play on his part,” he added.
The Spiders mounted a long drive, but linebacker Troy Eastman pressured Strauss and Fitzgerald stepped in front of the pass for the clinching interception.
UMaine was energized by the determined second-half running of Nigel Jones (23 carries, 115 yds., 2 rushing TDs). The sophomore tailback gave the Bears a 14-13 lead late in the third quarter with an 18-yard jaunt around left end.
Jones broke another one on UMaine’s first possession of the fourth quarter. This time, he side-stepped a linebacker, broke through a tackle and sped 46 yards to make it 21-13.
Jones’ performance was key since a shoulder injury kept Wasilewski (3 carries, 6 yds.) out of the ball-carrying mix.
“My O-line, they did a great job all game,” said Jones, who had only 20 first-half yards. “The first half was on me. I wasn’t being patient enough.”
Ebeling led UMaine receivers with seven catches for 63 yards and was complemented by Justin Perillo (6-65) and Derrick Johnson (5-56).
The defense held the Spiders in check and overcame injuries to starting safeties Khari Al-Mateen and Jamal Clay. Senior safeties Mike Mangiarelli (team-high 11 tackles) and Fitzgerald (7) stepped in and played well.
Eastman made nine tackles and Axel Ofori added seven.
Richmond went 58 yards on nine plays to open the second half, but settled for Brandon Jordi’s 24-yard field goal that gave the Spiders a 13-7 lead.
Two plays after a punt to the UR 8, UMaine freshman linebacker Chris Mulumba made a leaping interception at the 32 that set up the go-ahead score.
“We made some plays, got the turnovers on defense,” Cosgrove said. “Certainly the one at the end was huge, but the other two shaped some scores for us in the third quarter.”
On Richmond’s ensuing possession, Kendall James made an over-the-shoulder interception and the Bears bounced back by driving to the UR 9, but Wasilewski threw his second interception in the end zone.
The Bears afforded the Spiders only 65 rushing yards.
UMaine trailed 10-7 at halftime after a controversial call and a turnover.
UMaine threatened early in the second quarter when wide receiver Damarr Aultman took a short pass, made a nifty move and ran down the left sideline. He took a hit and appeared to clip the end zone pylon, but the official ruled him out of bounds at the 1.
On the next play, Wayne Pettus intercepted Wasilewski in the end zone.
“That was concerning at the time because of what we did the next play,” Cosgrove said. “That’s why it became a bigger deal. This team has an ability to move on, to go forward and do the things it needs to do.”
Richmond responded, going 78 yards on 16 plays, but the Spiders settled for Jordi’s 19-yard field goal that made it 10-7.
UMaine had jumped in front, sparked by Aultman’s 45-yard return of the opening kickoff. Wasilewski found Jones on a 6-yard scoring toss with only 3:51 elapsed.
Richmond tied it up on Strauss’ 5-yard TD throw to tight end Hunter Westfall with 2:26 to play in the first quarter.