The University of Maine’s defense was the stingiest against the run among 124 Football Championship Subdivision teams a year ago, giving up just 79.2 yards per game.
But Georgia Southern is a Football Bowl Subdivision team that went 10-3 and won a bowl game a year ago and the Eagles ran roughshod over the Black Bears on Saturday night, racking up 395 rushing yards en route to its 26-18 victory at Paulson Stadium in Statesboro, Ga.
The Eagles had eight rushes of 21 yards or more including four of at least 45 yards.
Georgia Southern averaged 7.6 yards per carry.
For the first time since 2012, Georgia Southern had three players rush for 100 or more yards in a game. Redshirt sophomore running back Matt LaRoche had nine carries for 154 yards, redshirt freshman quarterback Justin Tomlin was 11-for-132 and redshirt sophomore running back Logan Wright gained 114 yards on 15 carries.
The 1-1 Eagles were particularly potent in their option offense with a three-back alignment behind Tomlin.
Speedster Tomlin was making his first collegiate start in place of the injured Shai Werts.
To its credit, the Black Bear defense buckled down impressively in the red zone (inside the 20 yard-line), limiting the Eagles to one touchdown, and a career-high four field goals by Tyler Bass, in seven attempts in the zone.
After an impressive game-opening 15-play, 66-yard drive resulting in Kenny Doak’s 26-yard field, the Black Bear offense sputtered until it scored a pair of touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
Following Doak’s field goal, Georgia Southern scored 23 unanswered points on Tomlin’s 45-yard run, Bass field goals of 37, 20 and 31 yards and LaRoche’s 11-yard run.
There was a pivotal moment in the game in the third period.
Trailing 13-3, UMaine quarterback Chris Ferguson tossed a 53-yard pass to Earnest Edwards and a 13-yarder to Shawn Bowman to move the ball to the GS-5 yard line.
But Gavin Adcock stripped the ball from UMaine running back Emmanuel Reed and Reynard Ellis recovered.
A 75-yard run by LaRoche highlighted a five-play, 83-yard drive that was capped by Bass’ 31-yard field goal.
So what could have been a 13-10 lead was transformed into a 16-3 advantage.
UMaine football coach Nick Charlton said it was a turning point in the game.
“That was a big play,” said Charlton. “You just don’t know. [Ferguson] got intercepted. The D let up on a couple of [long] plays although [safety Joshua Huffman] and those guys ran them down and we held them to field goals.”
The Black Bears used a little trickery to cut the lead to 23-10 when wide receiver Edwards tossed his second career touchdown pass, this one covering 21 yards to Devin Young with 11:47 left.
Midway through the fourth quarter, an interception and 35-yard return by Kenderick Duncan Jr. set up Bass’ 40-yard field goal with 3:46 left to expand the lead.
But the resilient Black Bears answered with an eight-play, 75-yard drive culminating in Ferguson’s 46-yard touchdown pass to Jaquan Blair with 2:19 remaining. They also teamed up on a two-point conversion from the GS-8 after UMaine was assessed a delay of game penalty.
That made it a one-possession game.
However, Doak’s onsides kick failed and the Eagles ran out the clock.
Ferguson completed six of his first eight passes but wound up just 23-for-47 for 286 yards. He was victimized by several drops, also.
The Black Bears managed just 52 rushing yards.
“I’m disappointed,” said Charlton. “I’m sure some people would think we were competitive and got it to a one-possession game with these guys but we recruit and we develop players and our guys go into these games looking to win. We shot ourselves in the foot a little bit today on both sides of the ball.”
He said it was a combination of Georgia Southern’s defense and his team’s issues on offense that limited his Black Bears to three points until the fourth quarter.
“They’re a good football team. They’re very well-coached and I respect them a lot,” Charlton said. “We hurt ourselves. There were a lot of plays we didn’t make. We dropped some balls, our quarterback could have been better and our running game was inconsistent.
“When you play a better opponent, you can’t do that,” Charlton added. “We had some turnovers in the second half. They had some explosive plays even though we did a good job [holding them to field goals].
“We just didn’t do enough,” added Charlton.
Blair, Young and Bowman each caught five passes for UMaine, Edwards had four receptions and Andre Miller had three.
Reed rushed for 53 yards on 14 carries.
Huffman, nose tackle Charles Mitchell and linebacker Taji Lowe had seven tackles each for UMaine and Alejandro Oregon had six. Linebacker Jaron Grayer was involved in five tackles before suffering an upper body injury in the third quarter. He didn’t return.
UMaine was already without preseason All-American linebacker Deshawn Stevens, who is out for the year with a ruptured Achilles tendon.
Monquavion Brinson and Ellis had seven tackles each for the Eagles.
The 1-1 Black Bears, ranked sixth in the two FCS polls, will host 2-0 Towson, eighth in one poll and ninth in the other, in a mutual Colonial Athletic Association opener at 7 p.m. Saturday.