The remarkable journey will continue.
The University of Maine’s football team added yet another first in the 126-year history of the program Friday night, with a 23-18 Football Championship Subdivision victory over Weber State in Ogden, Utah, that will send the Black Bears to the semifinals for the first time.
UMaine’s nationally-ranked defense bailed out its sputtering offense by coming up with one big play after another including four second-half interceptions, two by graduate student strong safety Jeffrey DeVaughn, and a total of 13 tackles for loss.
UMaine (10-3) travels to Cheney, Washington, outside Spokane, to face No. 3 seed Eastern Washington (11-2), which beat California Davis 34-29 on Saturday.
Weber State, also looking for its first ever trip to the semis, finished at 10-3 after losing for the first time at home this season. The Wildcats had been 6-0 at Stewart Stadium.
“I am just really proud of the team,” UMaine third-year head coach Joe Harasymiak said. “To be the first team go to the final four is a proud moment for the state of Maine and the university and I’m proud to be the head coach.”
The Black Bear defense held Weber State to minus-one rushing yard on 25 attempts and the Wildcats converted just 5 of their 19 third-down opportunities.
UMaine came into the game ranked second among 124 FCS schools in sacks per game (3.67), rushing yards allowed per game (74.5); eighth in third-down conversion defense (28 percent), ninth in overall defense (295.3 yards allowed per game) and 22nd in scoring defense (21.6 points allowed per game).
Weber State wound up with 271 yards of total offense.
“We came out with intensity and violence,” said UMaine senior linebacker Sterling Sheffield, who finished with six tackles including three for loss. “We stuck to our plan the whole game and executed. Our seniors, like Jeff DeVaughn, and our playmakers all stepped up.”
Sheffield said the defensive line was outstanding.
“ Kayon Whitaker, Alejandro Oregon, all of those guys were violent and ready to go from the start. We pride ourself on our rush defense. We want to make teams one-dimensional and being able to do that definitely helped us.” Sheffield said.
“Thank God for the Black Hole (defense),” UMaine sophomore quarterback Chris Ferguson said. “I’m glad that those guys are on our side and they do what they do: force turnovers and not allow a lot of yards.”
“The guys tackled really well today,” Harasymiak said.
Ferguson said the offense didn’t have a memorable performance against a stout Weber State defense.
“They were difficult. They were a real good outfit. We scored some points when we needed to and we created some momentum swings but we’ve got to do better,” said Ferguson, who threw touchdown passes of nine yards to Jaquan Blair and 67 yards to Earnest Edward while going 15-for-30 for 170 yards. He was intercepted once.
UMaine finished with 286 total yards.
Redshirt freshman running back Ramon Jefferson’s 45-yard touchdown run with 2:56 left in the game gave the Black Bears a 20-12 lead.
“When I broke the first tackle, I saw the second guy and I knew he wasn’t going to tackle me,” said Jefferson, who wound up with 88 yards on 15 carries. “I wanted that touchdown bad. I had built up energy the whole game and I really felt it come out on that play for some reason.”
After he crossed the goal line, Jefferson spun the ball to the ground and was whistled for a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
So Kenny Doak had to convert the extra point from 35 yards away and he hooked it wide.
But Doak redeemed himself 1:22 later with a game-clinching 46-yard field goal after Whitaker swatted the ball as Weber State quarterback Jake Constantine released it and linebacker Jaron Grayer intercepted it at the WS-29.
Constantine threw his second touchdown pass of the game, this one a 12-yarder to Darryl Denby, as time elapsed.
Weber State opened the scoring on Trey Tuttle’s 37-yard field goal to finish off a six-play, 29-yard drive.
But the Black Bears, who were mired in terrible field position in the first period, finally strung together a touchdown drive late in the second period to take a 7-3 lead.
An 11-yard pass from Ferguson to Devin Young and Young’s 13-yard run moved the ball to the WS-20 and, five plays later, Blair caught a Ferguson pass at the WS-5, sprinted and dove into the end zone with 2:05 left in the half.
On the first series of the second half, UMaine made it 14-3 when the Black Bears lined up three receivers on the right side but Ferguson threw to his left to Edwards, who got inside position on cornerback Keilan Benjamin and broke free from Benjamin en route to his 67-yard TD reception.
Tuttle kicked another field goal, this one a 45-yarder, to make it 14-6 with 10:12 left in the third period and the Wildcats marched 72 yards on six plays to pull within 14-12 when Constantine evaded a sack and threw a 33-yard TD pass to Devon Cooley.
DeVaughn ripped the ball out of Cooley’s hands and the play was originally called an interception by DeVaughn. But video review showed Cooley had control of the ball when he hit the ground so the call was overturned.
Tuttle missed the extra point.
Weber State had two more forays into UMaine territory but interceptions by Manny Patterson and DeVaughn ended its drives before it could get into field goal range.
UMaine got the ball back with 5:08 left in the game courtesy of DeVaughn’s second interception, this one at the UMaine 42.
“We pride ourselves on making stops. Defense wins championships,” DeVaughn said. “I didn’t want to go home, it’s as simple as that. I want to go to the final four. When that ball went into the air, I had to get it. I didn’t want to let my teammates down. Being a senior and being a co-captain, I wanted to take the lead and step up. I wanted to lead by example.”
A holding call on Weber State on a third-and-eight extended UMaine’s drive and set up Jefferson’s 45-yard TD run.
“This one really hurts,” said Weber State coach Jay Hill. “We had a lot of opportunities and let some things slip away. Maine is a tough team and was so good against the run. We just couldn’t take advantage of our opportunities.”
Drew Belcher had five catches for 36 yards for UMaine and Edwards had three for 71 yards. Deshawn Stevens and Taji Lowe each had nine tackles including two apiece for lost yardage. Katley Joseph made seven tackles and Patterson and Sheffield each had six. Sheffield had three tackles for loss and a sack. Whitaker had the other of UMaine’s three sacks and two tackles for loss among his four.
Constantine completed 24 of 52 passes for 272 yards and the two TDs to go with four interceptions. Denby had seven catches for 154 yards, Rashid Shaheed had five for 19 and Cooley made four for 69. LeGrand Toia had a game-high 10 tackles and an interception, Jawian Harrison Jr. had eight tackles and Adam Rodriguez had six tackles and a sack.