ORONO, Maine — Colonial Athletic Association Commissioner Tom Yeager admitted he never expected to be in Orono on Nov. 15.
He made the trip to hand out some important hardware.
The University of Maine football team continued its record-setting season in impressive fashion Saturday afternoon.
The sixth-ranked Black Bears secured the program’s first outright conference championship since 1965 with a resounding 41-0 victory over New England rival Rhode Island on Morse Field at Alfond Stadium.
A crowd of 5,067 fans turned out as coach Jack Cosgrove’s UMaine team improved to 10-1 (8-0 CAA) for the first time in school history. The Bears, winners of seven in a row, earned the CAA’s automatic bid for the 24-team NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
“I really am pleased for this group of young men,” an emotional Cosgrove said with his 18 seniors looking on.
“They made everybody in Black Bear Nation real proud today. This is a great accomplishment for our football program,” he added.
UMaine, which caps its regular season this Saturday at archrival New Hampshire, has a good chance to earn a top-8 national seed, which would mean a first-round bye and a home playoff game on Dec. 7.
Saturday’s performance was indicative of the urgency and focus UMaine has demonstrated this season. That dynamic was magnified because it was “Senior Day.”
“We had a big senior class,” said senior linebacker Troy Eastman. “We were up here in the summer working hard, living with each other, eating with each other. This is what we wanted and we knew we were going to get it.”
Senior quarterback Marcus Wasilewski continued his sharp play, completing 22 of 26 passes for 307 yards and three touchdowns. He was not intercepted for the sixth consecutive game.
Senior John Ebeling led the receivers with seven receptions for 85 yards and a score. Senior Rickey Stevens (14 carries, 125 yards) spearheaded the ground game, ripping off a school-record, 90-yard touchdown romp.
Cabrinni Goncalves led the defense with eight tackles, including a sack, while Axel Ofori made seven tackles and had an interception.
“Knowing how much time we’ve shared — blood, sweat and tears, the whole nine yards — everything you’ve shared together finally comes together,” Wasilewski said. “It’s just a great accomplishment for all of us, the whole team. These guys behind me right here, we’re a tight group, and to have this (trophy) sit in front of us truly means a lot.”
Rhode Island (3-9, 2-6 CAA) mustered only 224 total yards, including just 51 rushing.
Josh Moody and James Timmins posted eight tackles each for the Rams.
Unlike the previous two games, the Black Bears made sure there was little suspense.
UMaine scored twice in the game’s first six minutes to build a 31-0 halftime lead.
After Art Williams (3 catches, 65 yds.) took a Wasilewski pass 36 yards on the first snap, the two hooked up again on a 21-yard scoring pass on the next play.
The defense forced a punt and UMaine needed only four plays to get back in the end zone. Damarr Aultman (3 catches, 57 yds.) got behind the secondary for a wide-open, 52-yard TD pass from Wasilewski.
Decloux’s PAT kick made it 14-0 with 9:08 left in the quarter.
Early in the second quarter, Stevens bolted 90 yards for a touchdown. He took a handoff, burst through the middle, then followed the determined blocking of wideout Derrick Johnson down the left sideline and into the end zone.
“I pretty much (saw) the hole open up. The O-line did a great job clearing everything out,” Stevens said.
“After that, my man D.J. [Johnson] … was blocking downfield for me, all the way to the end zone,” he added.
Four minutes later, URI faked a punt. The holder [QB Colt Peavey) tossed the ball to place-kicker Dylan Smith, whose subsequent shovel pass was tipped and intercepted by Bears defensive end Mike Cole.
“I saw a ball, flipped it up, caught it in the air and I don’t even remember much else than that,” Cole said of his first collegiate interception. “That’s the first time I’ve ever run with the ball in my life.”
On the next play, Ebeling got free down the right sideline and Wasilewski found him for a 49-yard TD hookup that made it 28-0.
UMaine added a 38-yard Sean Decloux field goal with 23 seconds left in the half.
With the game in hand, UMaine ground out a 75-yard drive that culminated in Stevens’ 1-yard run to make it 38-0 with 2:44 left in the third period.
Axel Ofori’s interception and 43-yard return set up Decloux’s 36-yard field goal with 4:17 to play.
Rhode Island made its only trip into the red zone on its final possession, but a Devin Clark sack ended it at the UMaine 22.
“Their accomplishment should not go unnoticed,” Cosgrove said.
“This is a labor of love for these guys and I’m incredibly proud of them and they deserve all the credit for where we’re at.”