ORONO, Maine — It appeared as though the University of Maine football team was going to take a little momentum into halftime when redshirt freshman quarterback Chris Ferguson threw a five-yard touchdown pass to Jared Osumah with 1:37 remaining to slice the University of Rhode Island’s lead to 21-17 on Saturday afternoon at Alfond Stadium.
But things got even better for the Black Bears 35 seconds later when junior wide receiver Micah Wright returned a punt 77 yards for the go-ahead touchdown and the Black Bears never looked back, scoring on their first four possessions of the second half en route to a 51-27 Colonial Athletic Association triumph in front of 9,205 fans on Homecoming.
After two subpar performances during which he was intercepted six times, redshirt freshman quarterback Chris Ferguson threw five touchdown passes and UMaine also received 248 rushing yards from sophomore running back Josh Mack on 30 carries.
The Black Bears, who scored 41 unanswered points, improved to 2-3 overall and 1-3 in the CAA. Rhode Island fell to 1-5, 0-3, respectively.
It was UMaine’s 11th straight win over Rhode Island and ninth in a row at home.
“That punt return sparked everything,” Ferguson said. “That sparked the stadium, it sparked our guys, it sparked our defense. And then it was kind of lights out from there.”
Wright said as he was about to catch Satchel Denton’s punt at the UMaine-23 yard line, “I saw a guy running down the field untouched so I knew I had to make him miss.
“After that, the blocking pretty much took care of itself. I made one guy miss and ran right up the chute,” Wright said.
“That was a huge momentum swing,” Rhode Island coach Jim Fleming said.
It never would have happened if Rhode Island quarterback JaJuan Lawson hadn’t suffered a five-yard loss on first down due to a high snap in the previous possession.
“I was willing to go into the locker room down 21-17 because we were getting the ball to start the second half and they were throwing the ball pretty well,” Harasymiak explained. “But once we got them in second-and-15, we decided to use our timeouts and it obviously worked out for us.”
On the first drive of the second half, Mack covered all 72 yards on four carries including a 16-yard TD run to expand the lead to 30-21 before Ferguson sandwiched TD throws of eight and 42 yards to Jaleel Reed around a 19-yarder to Earnest Edwards during a span of 2:38 late in the third quarter to make it 51-21.
The 42-yarder to Reed came on a flea flicker as Ferguson handed the ball off to Joe Fitzpatrick, who lateraled it back to the quarterback before he found Reed all alone behind the Rhode Island secondary.
Lawson’s six-yard TD throw to Marven Beauvais with 10:28 left in the game snapped UMaine’s run of 41 straight points.
Ferguson completed 18 of 28 passes for 214 yards and the five TDs, three to Reed and one apiece to Osumah and Edwards.
“I was disappointed and embarrassed with how we finished the game,” Fleming said. “They didn’t do anything that surprised us in the second half but we couldn’t stop the bleeding. They buried us.”
Ferguson attributed his success to “slowing down a little bit and listening to what Coach [Harasymiak] said. He told us if we all did our jobs, we’d be successful. I took my drops and went through my reads.”
He added that having Mack rack up the yards on the ground was important because it opened up the passing game.
“Sometimes I would just sit back and watch him run. I would smile because it made everything easier for us. That gave us a one-two punch. I’d let him to his thing and he would let me do my thing,” Ferguson said.
Mack, held to just 22 yards on 18 carries in a 31-0 loss to Villanova last week, explained that his footwork was “too fast last week so I wasn’t able to make my reads.”
But the elusive and hard-running Mack was more patient this week, and the offensive line of center Christopher Mulvey, guards John Reddington and Isaiah Brooks, and tackles Jamil Demby and Cody Levy opened some sizeable holes, especially in the second half.
“He’s a pain in the tail. He was really patient and it was frustrating because it looked like we had him bottled up a little bit but he’d wiggle out of it,” said Fleming, who added that his team didn’t tackle particularly well, either.
The Rams opened the game with a methodical 10 play, 75-yard drive capped by T.J. Anderson’s 16-yard run.
The Black Bears answered with a 54-yard TD pass from Ferguson to Reed but Tyler Harris, who shared the quarterbacking with Lawson, threw a 14-yard TD pass to Beauvais.
Brandon Briggs’ 21-yard field goal cut it to 14-10 but Aaron Parker’s 44-yard TD reception, which set a school record by extending his streak of consecutive games with a TD reception to eight, made it 21-10.
Fitzpatrick gained 74 yards on 11 carries, Reed caught five passes for 123 yards and linebackers Sterling Sheffield and Jaron Grayer made a team-high nine tackles each. Lawson led Rhode Island with 67 rushing yards on 10 carries and safeties D.J. Stewart and Nas Jones had 10 and nine tackles, respectively.
UMaine visits Albany at 1 p.m. Saturday.