A month ago, the University of Maine football team was staring at an almost impossible task.
After starting the season 2-5 (0-3 in Colonial Athletic Association play) the defending CAA champion and Football Championship Subdivision national semifinalists were clinging to the slimmest of playoff hopes.
They knew they would have to win their final five games, all CAA contests, to stay in the hunt.
Now, the Black Bears have one huge obstacle left to overcome: archrival New Hampshire at 1 p.m. Saturday at Wildcat Stadium in Durham, New Hampshire.
UMaine remained in contention with a wild 34-30 win over Rhode Island on Saturday in which it overcame a 14-point deficit in the final 8:24 remaining.
Head coach Nick Charlton said he is “confident our body of work will be enough” to earn an FCS playoff berth with a win at New Hampshire.
Two of UMaine’s losses have come to Football Bowl Subdivision teams Georgia Southern (26-18) and Liberty University (59-44).
The Wildcats are 5-5 (4-3 CAA) after having their playoff hopes dashed in a 24-17 setback at Albany on Saturday.
Charlton said his players have done a good job taking things one game at a time and learning from their experiences. The veterans have come through at key times and the reserves, who have been forced into action by injuries or suspensions, have made important contributions.
On Saturday, sophomore Jacob Hennie caught a career-high five passes for 52 yards with leading receiver and captain Jaquan Blair suspended for a game (violation of team rules) and WR Andre Miller and tight end Shawn Bowman both out with injuries.
Hennie, who had only two catches going into the contest, hauled in an important 15-yarder from freshman quarterback Joe Fagnano with UMaine facing a second-and-11 at the URI 38 on the game-winning drive.
“Jacob has worked real hard and has waited for his opportunity. It came, and he did a real nice job,” Charlton said.
Blair will be back for Saturday’s game.
Fagnano continued his impressive play, completing 13 of his 16 passes for 149 yards and two touchdowns in the second half. The Black Bears erupted for 31 points after producing only 83 total yards and three points in the first half against the league’s worst defense.
Fagnano was 7-for-13 in the first half for 67 yards, and he fumbled an exchange with running back Joe Fitzpatrick that was recovered by URI.
“I was very impressed with him [in the second half], especially his work in the two-minute drill. I’m proud of him and the way he led this team,” Charlton said.
Charlton said senior wide receiver Earnest Edwards willed UMaine team to win. He caught the game-winning, 11-yard touchdown pass from Fagnano with 34 seconds remaining.
Edwards amassed 259 total yards, including five catches for 58 yards, three runs for 73 yards, four kickoff returns for 100 yards and a 28-yard punt return that set up a touchdown. He replaced Blair as the punt returner.
Edwards was named the CAA’s Special Teams Player of the Week.
“He has been huge. He has been a big part of all of these wins. His impact on this team has been tremendous,” Charlton said. “He works really hard. He cares about his teammates.”
Edwards made the tackle on URI’s game-ending “Hail Mary” pass.
The defense kept UMaine in the game when the offense was struggling and then came up with two key stops in the fourth quarter that forced the Rams to kick field goals.
But Charlton said the Black Bears cannot repeat elements of Saturday’s performance against UNH and expect to win. UMaine was assessed 10 penalties for 86 yards, had a poor offensive showing in the first half and did not force any turnovers.
“We’ve got to play a lot better than we did [to beat UNH],” Charlton said. “It was a great win, but we have to clean up a lot of stuff.”
Former UNH quarterback Ricky Santos, the Wildcats’ interim head coach as Sean McDonnell deals with health issues, said his team will be ready even after suffering the disappointment of being eliminated from playoff contention.
“Playing against Maine will take care of itself. This game has always had a special meaning. You look at what Maine did to us last year, and we want to send our seniors out the right way,” he said.
UMaine dealt UNH a season-opening 35-7 loss last season.