WEST LONG BRANCH, N.J. — When a wide-open Derek Buttles dropped a pass in the end zone late in the third quarter, it appeared as though the game, too, was slipping through the hands of the University of Maine football team.
Thirteen minutes later, it was an improbable catch by Buttles that helped the Black Bears snatch the victory away from Monmouth.
The redshirt freshman tight end alertly grabbed Adam Farkes’ tipped desperation pass in the end zone with 2:49 left, lifting the Black Bears to a 21-17 victory Saturday at Kessler Field.
“It was good to be in the right spot at the right time, I guess,” Buttles said of his first career touchdown catch. “I dropped that ball in the end zone earlier. I was just hoping to bounce back and make a big play.”
Coach Jack Cosgrove’s team (1-1) avoided turnovers and overcame missed opportunities — and the remnants of Tropical Storm Hanna — to earn a character-building road win.
Freshman Brian Harvey narrowly missed two field goals: one that would have given the Bears the early lead, and one that would have tied the game early in the second half.
“We survived,” Cosgrove said. “We kept close enough. We overcame our mistakes with the missed field goals.”
The Bears fell behind 17-14 early in the fourth when rugged tailback David Sinisi (29 carries 182 yards) and the Hawks (0-2) marched 75 yards on 12 plays.
Then UMaine, heading into a steady, wind-driven rain, kept its collective composure in spite of prior frustrations.
With Monmouth having bottled up tailback Jhamal Fluellen (26 carries, 102 yds.) and the UMaine run game, Farkes and the Bears went to the air.
Farkes (17-for-27, 207 yds., 3 TDs) went 4-for-4 on the winning drive, including a clutch 26-yard pass to Mike Brusko on a third-and-15 play and a 32-yard completion to Buttles.
However, UMaine faced fourth-and-21 from the 23 with 3:00 to play. Farkes rolled to his left and waited for the receivers to flood the end zone before he lofted a pass toward the back, lefthand corner.
“I just threw it up to a bunch of guys and we got a bounce and Buttles made a great catch. It was pretty easy on my part,” Farkes said. “It was a crazy play.”
The rain-soaked ball was tipped at least once before Buttles reacted and snared it for the touchdown.
“It bounced off one of the receivers in the back of the end zone … and one of the other defenders and it just kind of fell into my hands,” Buttles said.
Harvey’s third successful PAT of the day gave UMaine the upper hand.
“We didn’t feel like we could kick the [40-yard] field goal,” Cosgrove said. “We felt like we needed to take a shot at the end zone. We did. We got lucky.”
The Bears’ defense made the lead stand up as linebacker Andrew Downey separated Sinisi from the ball on a fourth-down screen pass with 2:02 left.
“We all just came together as a defense, kind of found our identity out there,” Maine defensive end Jovan Belcher said. “We finished what we started, put the game away.”
UMaine’s resilience was evident after Sinisi’s 33-yard TD burst capped a 66-yard march to give the hosts a 10-0 edge with 1:04 left in the first half.
The Bears demonstrated some urgency as Farkes went 4-for-4 through the air. His 16-yard fade pass to wideout Landis Williams (6 catches, 61 yards) in the end zone got UMaine back in the game.
“That was a very important drive for us to go into halftime with those points,” Cosgrove said.
Farkes, who completed only one of his first seven throws, made good on 16 of his last 20 passes for 194 yards and three touchdowns.
The Bears had a chance to equalize early in the third after Troy Harris’ blocked punt at the MU 17, but Harvey missed a 33-yard field goal.
After the defense forced a three-and-out, UMaine cashed in. Farkes’ scramble on third-and-five kept the drive alive at the MU 27, then he found wide receiver Jeremy Kelley open on the right side with 5:37 left in the third to give the Bears their first lead at 14-10.
UMaine couldn’t sustain the momentum when 4½ minutes later Buttles dropped a would-be 25-yard TD pass in the end zone.
“It was very frustrating,” Buttles said. “I came to the sideline really upset and Flu [Fluellen] was one of the guys telling me to keep my head up, come back, play the next play.”
Senior linebacker Sean Wasson made an impressive season debut, making 10 tackles, eight unassisted, in his first collegiate start. He sat out the opener after a violation of the UMaine Student-Athlete Code of Conduct.
Senior safety Lamir Whetstone was in on seven tackles for UMaine, which plays its home opener at 6 p.m. Saturday against Stony Brook.