UMaine football team eyeing conference title, first playoff berth in 5 years

Peter Buehner | BDN
Peter Buehner | BDN
Earnest Edwards of the University of Maine (81) high-steps into the end zone to score a touchdown during the first half of the team's Colonial Athletic Association football game against New Hampshire at Alfond Stadium in Orono earlier this season. Heading into the regular season finale Saturday, Edwards leads the team in three statistical categories, with 41 receptions, 673 receiving yards and 7 receiving touchdowns.
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With a win Saturday over a tough opponent in Elon, the Black Bears will claim the conference championship outright.
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The University of Maine’s football team’s 28-9 victory at Richmond on Saturday has put the Black Bears in very good position to earn their first Football Championship Subdivision playoff berth since 2013 and a Saturday win over visiting Elon (North Carolina) would give them the Colonial Athletic Association’s outright title.

UMaine has already clinched a share of the conference title but a win over Elon could secure a first-round bye and a home berth for the second round of the playoffs.

Twenty-four teams qualify for the FCS playoffs. Ten conference champions earn automatic berths and there are 14 at-large teams chosen by the FCS selection committee.

The top eight seeds earn first-round byes.

However, according to CAA associate commissioner Rob Washburn, those teams don’t necessarily have to be conference champions if they have other impressive criteria, which would include overall record, noteworthy wins and strength of schedule.

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UMaine is currently the only team with just one conference loss, with a 6-1 record, thanks to its current three-game winning streak. Delaware, James Madison, Stony Brook and Towson are 5-2 and, like UMaine, they are all 7-3 overall. Elon is 4-2 and 6-3, but can’t win the conference title because its game with William and Mary was cancelled due to Hurricane Florence.

The CAA has placed four teams in the FCS playoffs the past four seasons and had five in 2007, 2008 and 2011.

“No league has ever gotten six but we feel we have six teams that are deserving of playoff berths,” said Washburn, who said UMaine will still have a strong shot at making the playoffs even if it loses to Elon.

“If you take the politics out of (the selection process), we should have a ton of teams in the playoffs,” said Towson coach Rob Ambrose in Monday’s weekly CAA coaches’ press conference. “Even the teams (in the middle of the standings) could win the whole thing.”

In addition to the Maine-Elon game, other regular season finales will see James Madison go to Towson; Stony Brook travel to Albany (2-8, 0-7) and Delaware entertain Villanova (4-6, 1-6).

Even though the Black Bears are leading the CAA, five conference teams are ranked ahead of them in at least one of the national FCS polls.

UMaine is ranked 16th in the STATS poll and 19th in the AFCA poll but 2017 and 2018 FCS championship runner-up James Madison is seventh in the STATS poll and eighth in the AFCA poll; Stony Brook is 10th in both; Elon is 12th and 14th, respectively; Towson is 15th and 16th and Delaware is 17th and 18th.

[Undersized defensive end makes presence felt for UMaine football team]

UMaine beat Towson 35-28 in Towson, Maryland, two Saturdays ago.

“Any team that goes 7-4 (overall) in this league is deserving of serious consideration for a playoff berth,” said Delaware coach Danny Rocco referring to the competitive nature of the CAA.

“Top to bottom, there are no days off in this league,” said UNH coach Sean McDonnell, whose Wildcats’ string of 14 consecutive playoff berths will come to an end this season.

Ambrose added that the league’s parity and quality “can either kill you or make you a champion. There’s no in-between.”

James Madison coach Mike Houston said “there isn’t another league in this country where you see playoff-caliber football teams every week (like the CAA). Nobody (outside of the CAA) realizes the competitiveness of the CAA. We should be very well-represented in the playoffs.”

UMaine head coach Joe Harasymiak said his team had three goals to begin the season and his Black Bears have realized two of them and could accomplish all three with a win on Saturday.

“Our first one is to win our rivalry game (against New Hampshire), our second is to win the battle of northern teams and third is to win the CAA title,” said Harasymiak.

UMaine beat New Hampshire 35-7 and is 3-0 against the other CAA schools in the northeast with additional victories over Rhode Island (38-36) and Albany (28-9). UMaine did not play Stony Brook, who would also be 3-0 against northeastern teams with a win at Albany.

“The CAA title is the one goal left and we have put ourselves in position to do it, but we will have an extremely impressive and talented team coming up here on Saturday,” said Harasymiak.

“We’re excited about the opportunity. We don’t want to share the title with anyone.”

Ronnie Gillis | UMaine athletics
Ronnie Gillis | UMaine athletics
Rain-soaked University of Maine football head coach Joe Harasymiak is all smiles as he runs off the field after the Black Bears beat Western Kentucky 31-28 in September in Bowling Green, Ky. It was only the third victory in UMaine history over a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent.

In UMaine’s last three wins, the Black Bears have scored a touchdown on their opening drive and they never trailed in any of the three games, although Towson did tie them 28-28.

“We’ve set the tone three games in a row,” said Harasymiak. “The guys understand the room for error is smaller in these November games and they’re playing pretty well right now.”

“We knew we had to play great football in November and we’ve done that the first two games. Having a chance to win the title outright gives you all the motivation you need,” he added.

The one negative aspect of the win at Richmond was the injury sustained by sophomore quarterback Chris Ferguson. He re-injured his throwing shoulder in the second half and left the game.

His status for Saturday is up in the air. He missed two games with the injury earlier this season.

“It’s too early to tell. He’s day-to-day,” said Harasymiak.

Ferguson has completed 57 of his 94 passes over the past three games for a 60.6 percent completion rate. He has thrown seven touchdown passes and been intercepted just once.

He has completed 148 of 251 passes for 1,667 yards and 14 TDs on the season with seven interceptions. Back-up quarterback Isaiah Robinson, a redshirt freshman, has completed 45 of 95 passes for 525 yards and two TDs with four interceptions.

[Redshirt freshman QB prepping to step in as the starter]

He was 1-1 in his two starts.

Elon will be playing its back-up quarterback in Jalen Greene after CAA Offensive Rookie of the Year Davis Cheek suffered a season-ending knee injury in a 28-16 loss at Delaware on Oct. 13.

Greene has completed just 27 of 66 passes for 407 yards but is the team’s fourth-leading rusher with 254 yards on 61 carries for the run-oriented Phoenix.

Elon leads the CAA in rushing (221.2 yards per game) while UMaine has the league’s best rushing defense (65.4 ypg allowed) and is second best in the country in that category.

Elon is 24th in the nation in rushing offense.

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