It took Football Bowl Subdivision Western Kentucky University barely five minutes to put up three touchdowns against the University of Maine football team on Saturday night.
Undaunted, the Black Bears demonstrated the importance of maintaining poise and playing a full 60 minutes.
UMaine’s defense set the tone and its opportunistic offense scored 31 unanswered points as UMaine stunned Western Kentucky 31-28 at humid Houchens-Smith Stadium.
“For an FCS team to stick with it and fight back, it’s all about them,” UMaine head coach Joe Harasymiak said in crediting his players.
UMaine (2-0) may have received a $300,000 guarantee to make the trip to Bowling Green, but the Football Championship Subdivision representatives were not willing to play the patsy.
“It’s always awesome to get a win, obviously against a bigger program, too, we’ve got to go back to work next week,” said UMaine quarterback Chris Ferguson.
The victory was only the third in UMaine history over an FBS opponent. Those schools are allowed 22 more scholarships and play at a higher level of competition. UMaine previously knocked off Mississippi State 9-7 in 2004 and beat Massachusetts 24-14 in 2013.
“I think we’re preaching the right stuff — accountability, belief — and these kids are believing in it,” Harasymiak said. “Our culture is so strong that no matter what comes up, we’re going to fight back.”
The Hilltoppers threatened to pull it out, but Jordan Swann broke through and blocked a Ryan Nuss field-goal attempt with 47 seconds remaining to help UMaine secure the win.
Sterling Sheffield (12 tackles) and Deshawn Stevens (9 tackles) spearheaded the defense, while Ferguson (11-for-28 passing, 185 yards, 3 touchdowns, 1 interception) and tailback Joe Fitzpatrick of North Yarmouth (21 carries, 82 yards) were the offensive catalysts.
The Black Bears found themselves in a 21-0 hole in the first quarter after the Hilltoppers scored twice in the first five plays from scrimmage.
On WKU’s first snap, Drew Eckels found Lucky Jackson on a 66-yard touchdown pass with only 18 seconds elapsed.
UMaine picked up a first down on its ensuing possession, but on the fourth play Devon Key stepped in front of a Ferguson pass and raced 45 yards for a score at the 13:17 mark. Nuss added the PAT for a 14-0 lead.
After a UMaine punt, it took WKU only five plays to expand the lead. Eckels’ 32-yard TD toss to a wide-open Jackson made it 21-0 with only 5:03 elapsed.
“Our guys just weren’t sticking to their responsibilities,” Sheffield said. “We had a lot of busted [pass] coverages in the beginning, I think some people had some nerves or something like that, but we settled down and we were able to manhandle them over the next three quarters.”
UMaine was able to turn things around in the second quarter and got on the board with 10:20 remaining in the half when Ferguson recognized a blitz off and lofted a short pass to Ramon Jefferson on the right side.
Jefferson made a defender miss, then bolted down the sideline to the end zone, where he stumbled across the goal line before fumbling. Game officials initially ruled a fumble and a touchback, but the call was reversed on video review as it was determined Jefferson had broken the plane of the goal line.
Kenny Doak’s PAT cut the deficit to 21-7.
UMaine made it a one-score game with 1:32 left in the second quarter, going 59 yards in three plays. The clincher was Ferguson’s well-placed 32-yard touchdown pass to Micah Wright over the head of a WKU defensive back.
The defense got UMaine even on WKU’s first possession of the second half. On a second-and-17 play from the UM 38, Sheffield burst in and hit Eckels, who fumbled.
Stevens picked up the loose ball at midfield and raced uncontested into the end zone. Doak’s PAT made it 21-all.
“We just started to see ourselves make plays. At the beginning, the storm was rolling in on us. It’s a confident group of kids,” Harasymiak said.
UMaine took its first lead late in the third quarter after WKU made a questionable decision that cost it dearly. The Hilltoppers went for it on a fourth-and-one play from their own 15-yard line, but Sheffield and Andrew Stevens made the stop, putting the Black Bears in glorious field position.
On the next play, Ferguson lofted a pass to Wright in the end zone and Doak’s kick made it 28-21 with 5:16 to play in the third.
The UMaine defense had stifled WKU. The Black Bears surrendered 175 yards and 21 points in the first quarter, but held the Hilltoppers to 70 yards over the second and third quarters.
Once the Black Bears had the lead, they looked to the offensive line and the determined running of Fitzpatrick to run some clock.
UMaine appeared to put the game on ice with a short drive culminating in Doak’s 37-yard field goal with 7:11 left that made it 31-21.
However, WKU struck on its next play from scrimmage when Eckels hit Garland LaFrance on a quick toss to the left side and LaFrance sprinted 75 yards for a TD.
The Black Bears were able to chew up more clock, and David Gelb’s punt to the WKU 2-yard line put the hosts in a hole. The Hilltoppers moved the ball to the UM 37, but Eckels was injured on a third-down scramble and had to leave the game.
WKU elected to try a field goal, but Swann’s block ended the suspense.
UMaine held WKU to 42 rushing yards despite surrendering the big plays that led to 347 yards through the air.
Ramon Jefferson added 60 rushing yards for the Bears. Mozai Nelson made six tackles, including two of UMaine’s six sacks.
Eckels finished 23-for-41 for 347 yards and three scores, while Jackson made four catches for 115 yards and two TDs.