Elon University’s offense put on a clinical display of third down efficiency and took advantage of some costly University of Maine penalties to outlast the Black Bears 33-23 in a Colonial Athletic Association game at Alfond Stadium Saturday afternoon.
Elon is now 3-3 overall and 2-1 in the CAA while UMaine is 1-4 and 0-3, respectively.
Elon scored on the game’s opening drive and never trailed.
The Phoenix converted 12 of 16 third downs into first downs against UMaine’s defense, which came into the game ranked 112th among 123 Football Championship Subdivision teams in pass defense, allowing 301.2 yards per game; 108th in points allowed (39 ppg) and 106th in total yards allowed (462.8).
Elon led 19-10 at the half and strung together a 12-play 80-yard drive to expand the lead in the third period thanks to a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty which extended the drive and enabled senior quarterback Davis Cheek to eventually score on a one-yard run.
Sophomore Trevin Ewing minimized the damage by returning the ensuing kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown to make it 26-16. UMaine failed to convert a two-point conversion after an illegal substitution penalty pushed the ball back to the eight-yard line.
UMaine pulled to within 26-23 on Zavier Scott’s eight-yard run with 31 seconds left in the third quarter after redshirt freshman quarterback Derek Robertson threw a 55-yard pass to Andre Miller to set it up.
But on the kickoff, which sailed through the end zone, UMaine was assessed an unnecessary roughness penalty which enabled Elon to start at its own 40-yard line instead of at the 25.
The two key plays in the game occurred during that pivotal 11-play, 60-yard drive that restored a 10-point lead.
Facing a third-and-13 at his own 37-yard line, Cheek got flushed out of the pocket toward the left sideline but he flipped an off-balance 16-yard pass up the sideline to Bryson Daughtry to pick up the first down.
Later in the drive, staring at a third-and-12 at the UMaine 14-yard line, Cheek completed a pass to Kortez Weeks to pick up another first down and then McKinley Witherspoon burrowed into the end zone from the two-yard-line on the next play to make it 33-23 with 10:14 to go.
“We knew we had to put points on the board on that drive,” Cheek said. “We knew that was a big moment. We’ve been in a lot of those moments this year so we didn’t flinch.”
UMaine senior cornerback Rich Carr said the defense’s inability to stop Elon on third down throughout the game was the result of “a lot of discipline errors which enabled a good team to capitalize.”
“We hammer on getting off the field on third down and we just didn’t do that today,” he added.
Carr also said Cheek deserves credit for his play.
“He’s good. He’s smart. He makes the right decisions. We gave him a lot today and he took advantage of what we gave him,” Carr said.
Cheek completed 28 of 36 passes for 325 yards and three TDs while running for another.
Cheek said his offensive line did a good job protecting him and they knew UMaine liked to play a lot of man-to-man coverage in the secondary.
“So it is my job to find the open man and we did a pretty good job of that,” Cheek said.
Elon outgained UMaine by just 56 yards (421-365) but UMaine went 4-for-11 on third down and Elon had a significant edge in time of possession: 37:59-22:01.
“When a team goes 12-for-16 on third down and has the ball for 37 minutes, that’s very difficult to overcome,” UMaine head coach Nick Charlton said. “Our defense has to be able to get off the field (by stopping them on third down). And we took some critical penalties that matter, especially in close games.’
He also said “we left way too many plays out there. We had the ability to win the game but we didn’t do that.”
Jonny Messina missed two second-half field goals for UMaine which also didn’t help the cause. He sailed a 37-yarder wide left on the first drive of the third period and Torrence Williams blocked a 34-yarder with 4:54 left in the fourth.
Jackson Parham and Weeks each caught six passes for the Phoenix for 71 and 23 yards, respectively, and Daughtry had four for 89 yards. Jaylan Thomas rushed for 45 yards on 18 carries and caught three passes for 51.
Robertson completed 19 of 32 passes for a career-high 283 yards, and Old Town’s Miller caught eight passes for a career-best 183 yards. Shawn Bowman had five for 50 and Freddie Brock ran for a game-high 50 yards on 13 carries and caught a pass.
“We need to convert on third down (more) to keep our drives alive and keep our defense off the field (to give them some rest),” Miller said.
The Black Bears used their best drive of the first half to pull within striking distance as Robertson tossed a 25-yard touchdown pass to Bowman to make it 19-10 with 35 seconds left.
Cheek, who was 18-for-23 passing for 206 yards in the first half, had supplied Elon with its biggest lead of the game at 19-3 when he threw a 39-yard TD pass to Daughtry with 2:41 left.
But the Black Bears strung together a seven-play, 79-yard drive to narrow the gap.
The Phoenix took the game’s opening kickoff and marched 75 yards to take a 7-0 lead on Cheek’s nine-yard TD pass to Donovan Williams.
UMaine answered with a 40-yard field goal from Messina after Miller made a terrific catch between two defenders good for 47 yards.
Elon extended the lead to 13-3 on its next drive as Cheek threw a 30-yard TD pass to Thomas.
Bo Sanders’ seven tackles led Elon while Shakur Smalls, Ray Miller and Austin Chambers had 10 apiece for UMaine, which will host William and Mary (Va.) for Homecoming next Saturday at noon.