ORONO, Maine — Bryant University proved itself a formidable opponent for the University of Maine football team on Saturday afternoon.
Ultimately, the Black Bears maintained their composure after a lackluster first 25 minutes and later solved the undermanned but hard-nosed Bulldogs.
UMaine tightened up its defense and hit a handful of big plays on offense, scoring 28 unanswered points on its way to a 35-22 victory in front of a lively crowd of 5,863 at Alfond Stadium.
“I think they, in a lot of ways, were the best team we’ve played so far, without a doubt,” said UMaine head coach Jack Cosgrove, whose team improved to 3-0 for the first time since 2002.
UMaine has the Football Championship Subdivision maximum of 63 scholarship equivalencies, while Bryant coach Marty Fine explained his program is working with “about one-third of that.”
“They’e better than us,” Fine offered. “Their players are just a little bit bigger, if you look out there, just a little bit stronger, a little bit faster.”
The Black Bears were energized by a vocal crowd that included a large contingent of students on the visitors’ side.
“It was great. They were fired up right from the start,” said senior quarterback Marcus Wasilewski, who passed for four touchdowns and accounted for 327 yards of offense.
“I think that’s the loudest [opening] kickoff I’ve heard since I’ve been here so far,” he added. “It was really good to see that, the support that we have.”
Wasilewski completed 23 of 32 passes for 263 yards without an interception. Senior Derrick Johnson paced the receivers with nine catches for 69 yards and a score, while Damarr Aultman had five grabs for 89 yards and TD.
A balanced ground game was paced by senior tailback Rickey Stevens, who netted 67 yards on 10 carries. Wasilewski carried 13 times for 64 yards.
Even so, Bryant of the Northeast Conference (2-1) outgained the Black Bears 460-444.
Tailback Paul Canevari (18 carries, 96 yards, 2 TDs) headed the Bulldogs’ run game. Quarterback Mike Westerhaus competed only 15 of 38 passes for 236 yards with one touchdown and an interception. Jordan Harris made nine catches for 182 yards and a TD.
“The quarterback played well, [they have] two good backs and they played hard up front,” said UMaine senior linebacker Troy Eastman, who made seven tackles with a key interception. “They gave us some trouble today.”
The game wasn’t without adversity for UMaine. Ricardo McCray’s blocked punt, which barely trickled out of the end zone, gave Bryant a 16-7 lead four minutes into the second quarter.
The Bulldogs then had a golden opportunity to extend the lead only two plays later, but Harris couldn’t corral a bomb from Westerhaus after getting behind the secondary.
“We had chances to make some big plays and we didn’t,” Fine said.
“We missed him [Harris] twice, once late in the first half and once in the second half, with plays that we’d like to be able to convert,” he added.
UMaine cashed in on its chances and scored 14 points in the last 3:46 of the half to gain the upper hand.
The defense helped turn the tide, thwarting two Bryant possessions that began near midfield. The offense then sprang to life late in the quarter.
Wasilewski fired a 14-yard pass to John Ebeling on first down, then he found Aultman on an underneath crossing route that resulted in a 51-yard touchdown.
“We talked about it on the sideline, expected it [a blitz] again, got it, and corrected ourselves and got a big play out of it,” Wasilewski said.
Sean Decloux’s PAT cut the deficit to 16-14 with 3:11 to play in the half.
After a 55-yard kickoff return by Michael Perry to the UMaine 43, the defense stepped up. On the second play, tackle Patrick Ricard put a hit on Westerhaus, whose short throw was intercepted by linebacker Troy Eastman at midfield and returned 18 yards.
“The whole week, our defensive coordinator [Paul Ferraro] was just telling us to be aware of anything coming back side, so I just kind of stayed home,” Eastman said.
UMaine needed five plays to cash in as Wasilewski hit Johnson on a post pattern for a 16-yard TD that put the Bears on top for good, 21-16, with 1:15 left in the half.
“We were able to do some things, make some plays, and take control of the game,” Cosgrove said.
UMaine extended its advantage with two third-quarter scores.
Wasilewski’s 34-yard scramble set up a 17-yard TD toss to Justin Perillo on the next play to make it 28-16, then the Bears went 70 yards on 11 plays to end the quarter. The drive culminated in Wasilewski’s 19-yard TD throw to Jordan Dunn that put UMaine ahead 35-16.
UMaine made some important halftime adjustments that paved the way for a more effective run game.
“We used a little what we call a ‘cut’ play that I think, really, we’re going to see was a difference-maker for us,” Cosgrove said. “We ran a little bit of power, too.”
Bryant added a late TD on a 58-yard pass from Westerhaus to Harris, but was held in check.
“ It’s not that you just don’t convert or get first downs,” Fine said. “It’s that we’re turning the ball back over to them and they’re too good for that many possessions.”
Bryant set a tough, physical tone and outgained the Bears 190 yards to 89 in the first quarter.
UMaine grabbed a 7-0 lead with a seven-play, 68-yard drive on its first possession. A 38-yard toss from Wasilewski to Ebeling set up Wasilewski’s 3-yard TD run.
Bryant dominated the next 17 minutes and responded with a 70-yard drive. Westerhaus’ 32-yard pass to Harris led to a 7-yard scoring run by Canevari.
The Bulldogs needed five plays to score on their next possession as Canevari’s 42-yard TD burst off left tackle made it 14-7 with 2:27 left in the quarter.
Linebacker Christophe Mulumba sparked the UMaine defense with 12 tackles, including half a sack. Marquisse Watson had 10 tackles for Bryant.