ORONO — The University of Maine parlayed a late defensive stand, two clutch third-down runs and a pair of blocked extra points that were turned into rare two-point returns into a hard-fought 31-26 win over Merrimack College Saturday afternoon.
The win marked UMaine’s first of the season, improving to 1-2 while Merrimack fell to 2-1.
Trailing 31-26, Merrimack marched down to UMaine’s five-yard line with 3:15 left. But a running play for no gain, a pass that lost a yard thanks to a Vince Thomas tackle and two incompletions gave the ball back to UMaine and it ran out the clock thanks to runs by Zavier Scott and Elijah Barnwell that netted first downs.
Senior cornerback Rich Carr blocked two extra points with Kolubah Pewee Jr. returning one for two points and Carr himself scooping up the other and racing down the field for the other two points.
It is only the third time in Football Championship Subdivision history that two blocked extra points have been returned for two points in one game.
Those four points forced Merrimack to go for a touchdown on its last drive instead of kicking a go-ahead field goal.
“We thought we could block them and we put Richard in there for that purpose,” UMaine head coach Nick Charlton said.
Carr sliced in off the edge to block them.
“All week in practice, we emphasized that if we go hard enough, we could block them. It came down to who wanted it more,” Carr said. “I was just trying to make a play for the team to put us in position for a win. Ultimately, that’s what it came down to.”
The Warriors outgained UMaine 362-265 and Warrior quarterback Westin Elliott, a Louisiana Tech transfer, completed 29 of 48 passes for 282 yards and two touchdowns with wide receiver Jacari Carter hauling in 18 of them for 131 yards and both TDs.
But the Black Bear defense stiffened when it had to at the end.
“We knew we needed a big stop and everybody locked in and made a play. We didn’t think about what had happened earlier in the game,” said redshirt senior free safety Fofie Bazzie, who finished with a game-high 13 tackles and three pass breakups.
Carr covered Carter on the fourth down pass and broke up the play.
Redshirt freshman Derek Robertson, filling in for the injured Joe Fagnano, turned in a so-so performance in his first varsity start. He completed 11 of 23 for 141 yards.
He missed some open receivers but he didn’t turn the ball over. He was sacked just once and had a 11-yard run for a first down. Receivers dropped a few of his passes.
“Derek was solid. He missed some throws but they weren’t all his fault,” Charlton said.
The Black Bears forced their first two turnovers of the season, recovering fumbles on Merrimack’s first two possessions, and they transformed them into a 10-0 lead.
UMaine had a pair of interceptions in the second half by Abdul Stewart and Ray Miller.
But the Warriors were able to move the ball consistently against UMaine’s defense and they used a late first-half touchdown, following a 54-yard kickoff return by linebacker Rodney Samson, to pull within 22-20 at the intermission.
Samson’s return set the Warriors up at the UMaine-41 yard line and it took just five plays to cash in as Elliott lofted the ball to Carter in the corner of the end zone for a 10-yard TD with 27 seconds left.
The Black Bears took a 7-0 lead with a six-play, 50-yard drive after Xavier Nurse forced a Shaka Moales fumble and Pewee Jr. recovered it.
On Merrimack’s next possession, Shakur Smalls forced a Tyvon Edmonds Jr. fumble and Raffaele Salamone recovered on the Merrimack-37.
But UMaine had to settle for a 26-yard field goal by Jonny Messina.
The Warriors answered early in the second period with a 14-play, 75-yard drive finished off by Victor Dawson’s one-yard run.
But on Matt Sokol’s extra-point attempt, Carr blocked it and Pewee Jr. scooped it up and raced the length of the field for two points to make it 12-6.
However, it took Merrimack just 4:05 to take the lead as Carter hauled in a 13-yard pass from Elliott with 8:17 left in the half.
The Bears quickly regained the lead thanks to Devin Young’s 51-yard kickoff return and two 15-yard penalties on Merrimack.
UMaine had the ball at the Merrimack 11-yard line but a holding penalty on UMaine tight end Shawn Bowman erased a Barnwell touchdown run and UMaine eventually had to settle for Messina’s 34-yard field goal.
UMaine expanded the lead to 22-13 on Freddie Brock’s four-yard run with 1:40 left but Samson’s long kickoff return and the 10-yard pass from Elliott to Carter closed the gap.
The Black Bears expanded their lead to 29-20 5:27 into the second half when Brock circled out of the backfield and caught a perfect Robertson pass in full stride down the left sideline for a 51-yard TD.
Later in the third period, a roughing-the-passer penalty on Austin Ambush on a failed third down pass extended a Merrrimack drive and the Warriors made the Black Bears pay as Edmonds Jr. capped a 71-yard drive with a two-yard run.
But Carr again blocked Sokol’s extra-point and this time he returned it himself for two more points and a 31-26 lead.