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ORONO, Maine — With 1:04 remaining in the game and the University of Maine clinging to a one-point lead over Elon, Black Bears head coach Joe Harasymiak and his coaching staff decided to change its pass rush.
Elon was facing a fourth-and-4 at the UMaine 42-yard line.
Instead of having its four rushers loop around, they were told to go straight ahead and try to get pressure on Elon quarterback Daniel Thompson. It worked to perfection.
Senior linebacker Sterling Sheffield swatted the arm of Thompson just as he released the ball and it floated harmlessly to the Morse Field turf as the Black Bears sewed up the CAA championship and the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs with a 27-26 victory.
“The tackle didn’t kick back as far as I thought he was going to and I long-armed him and knocked the ball down. It was the most memorable play of my career at the University of Maine,” said Sheffield, who made nine tackles.
No. 16 UMaine (8-3 overall, 7-1 CAA) was picked to finish eighth in the CAA preseason poll. It is UMaine’s first league title since 2013.
“I just told (the players) afterwards that if you are accountable to yourself and each other and believe in yourself and each other, you’ll have a chance to accomplish anything,” Harasymiak said.
“That has really been the story of this season. I’m very proud of them and the staff. It’s all about them. They did a real good job to fight through that and get a win,” he added.
Thompson (18-for-43, 250 yards) said he was looking to hook up with Cole Taylor (6 catches, 115 yards) on a corner route near the UMaine sideline.
“He had a really good release (off the line of scrimmage). But I just couldn’t get the ball to him. They made a good play,” said Thompson, the third-string quarterback who came off the bench in the second quarter and rallied the Phoenix (6-4, 4-3 CAA) from a 14-point, second-half deficit.
Elon, ranked 12th in the FCS, outgained UMaine 432 total yards to 234.
The Black Bears seemingly had the win sewn up a minute earlier when Jaron Grayer intercepted Thompson’s fourth-down pass. But Brelynd Cyphers wrestled the ball away and Tristen Cox recovered it to give Elon a fresh set of downs.
“That gave us another chance to go down and score and I thought we were (going to do so),” said Thompson.
Junior wide receiver Earnest Edwards became the first Black Bear ever to return two kickoffs for a touchdown in a game, providing critical points as UMaine’s offense went dormant after quarterback Chris Ferguson re-injured his throwing shoulder in the second quarter.
Meanwhile, a weary Black Bear defense came up with a number of clutch plays to hold the Phoenix at bay.
Edwards’ 95-yard kickoff return in the second period came right after Cyphers (10 carries, 68 yards) had scored on a 2-yard run to tie the game 7-7.
In the third period, he rattled off a 93-yard kickoff return to make it 24-13.
“On the first one, there was a big hole and I only had to beat the kicker,” said the speedy Edwards. “On the second one, there was a big hole and I had to only make one guy miss and I did.”
“They did a great job up front on the kickoff returns,” said Harasymiak who added that special teams coordinator Jared Keyte deserved a game ball.
Drew Belcher scored on a 1-yard run to open the scoring in the second quarter before Cyphers answered with a 2-yard run later in the period after the drive was set up by an ill-advised throw by Ferguson, who was intercepted by Connor Christiansen.
Ferguson was hurt on the play and didn’t return.
With 20 seconds left in the half, backup QB Isaiah Robinson was intercepted and Skyler Edwards kicked the first of his career-high four field goals, a 40-yarder, to close out the half.
Kenny Doak (44 yards) and Davis (39 yards) swapped early second-half field goals before Edwards’ kickoff return expanded the lead to 11.
Doak kicked a 19-yarder 3:51 later after Daniel Rymer blocked a punt and recovered it.
“You can’t give up 17 points on special teams and expect to win,” said Elon coach Curt Cignetti, who lost starting quarterback and 2017 CAA Offensive Rookie of the Year Davis Cheek to a knee injury earlier this season. “But we certainly had chances at the end. Congratulations to Maine on their championship. They’re a really, really good football team. We came one play away from getting it done.”
Thompson, who was the backup to Jalen Greene to start the game, was inserted because Cignetti felt Elon would have more success on the air against the nation’s No. 2 rushing defense. Thompson threw a 32-yard TD pass to Taylor with 1:51 left in the third quarter and led fourth-quarter drives resulting in Davis field goals with 10:23 and 4:33 left, respectively.
Ramon Jefferson rushed for 130 yards on 25 carries for the Black Bears. Ferguson and Robinson each completed four of 10 passes for a combined 86 yards. Robinson was intercepted twice and Ferguson was picked off once.
Belcher caught four passes for 46 yards.
Deshawn Stevens made a game-high 16 tackles, Taji Lowe was in on 10 and Jeffrey DeVaughn was involved with eight.
Elon’s Jaylan Thomas netted 65 yards on 14 carries.
Christiansen had two interceptions for Elon and Marcus Willoughby and Warren Messer were each in on eight tackles.