ORONO, Maine — It was a historic day for the University of Maine football program on Saturday.
The 14th-ranked Black Bears won their first-ever home playoff game and did so in record-setting style. Sophomore quarterback Chris Ferguson threw five touchdown passes to lead UMaine past No. 9 Jacksonville State of Alabama 55-27 on Morse Field at Alfond Stadium.
Seventh seed UMaine (9-3) travels to No. 2 seed Weber State (10-2) for an 8 p.m. Friday national quarterfinal in Ogden, Utah. Weber State beat Southeast Missouri State 48-23.
It was the first home playoff victory in the 126-year history of the UMaine program.
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“[It’s a] great moment for the university. I’m proud to be part of it. Our guys executed at a high level and made a ton of plays, UMaine head coach Joe Harasymiak said.
UMaine’s 55 points and Ferguson’s five TD passes were school playoff records. And the Black Bears’ first-half output exceeded their best offensive production for an entire game this season — a 38-36 win at Rhode Island on Oct. 13.
Redshirt freshman running back Ramon Jefferson carried 26 times for 186 yards and two touchdowns. Ferguson, who used the bye week to heal his sore throwing shoulder, completed 14 of 26 passes for 159 yards.
“Our offense has that capability. We’re explosive. We can do those things,” Ferguson said. “The defense set us up in the red zone with those turnovers and that made it easy on us.”
The Black Bears’ nationally ranked defense also played a major role. Jacksonville State (9-4) boasted one of the top offenses in the country, averaging 499 yards and 41.1 points per game.
UMaine forced two fumbles, leading directly to 14 points, and held the Gamecocks to 1-for-14 on third down and 2-for-6 on fourth down. JSU had converted 47.1 percent of third downs this season.
Jacksonville State center Tyler Scozzaro said UMaine’s defense “came out in the first half and played more physical than we did. They were very physical and very sound. They were a well-coached bunch.”
Linebackers Deshawn Stevens and Jaron Grayer made 10 and eight tackles, respectively, and Manny Patterson logged six with two pass breakups. UMaine held Jacksonville State to 87 rushing yards and registered four sacks.
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The UMaine offense converted 6 of 14 third-down opportunities against the nation’s best third-down defense (24.7 percent).
“The offensive line took care of me, I didn’t take too many hits,” Ferguson said. “The wideouts did their jobs and Ramon opened things up with the running game.”
Ferguson threw two touchdown passes to Earnest Edwards and one apiece to Drew Belcher, Jaquan Blair and Micah Wright. Edwards also ran for a touchdown and Joe Fitzpatrick netted 50 yards on seven carries as UMaine rushed for 268 yards on 45 attempts.
“Hats off to Maine, they played really well,” said Jacksonville State coach John Grass. “They got off to a great start and played real well on offense. They had a lot of wrinkles. They had a good game plan.”
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JSU’s Zerrick Cooper, a Clemson transfer, completed 19 of 44 passes for 365 yards and two TDs, both to Jamari Hester (4 rec., 125 yds.). Trae Barry (6 rec., 102 yds.) and Josh Pearson (4 rec., 62 yds.) also were productive.
The Black Bears jumped out to a 21-0 lead. The first score was set up by the defense as Kayon Whitaker sacked Cooper and forced a fumble that was recovered by Jamehl Wiley at the 4-yard line.
On the next play, Ferguson found Blair on a 4-yard TD pass.
After a JSU punt, the Black Bears mounted a five-play, 81-yard drive capped by a 41-yard pass from Ferguson to Edwards and Kenny Doak’s PAT made it 14-0.
Ferguson and Edwards hooked up again on a 4-yarder with 1:47 left in the quarter to extend the lead to 21-0.
The big-play Gamecocks climbed back into the game, scoring their 21st and 22nd touchdowns in excess of 29 yards this season. Cooper threw scoring passes of 36 and 70 yards to Hester.
But the Black Bears scored the next 21 points to build their 28-point halftime lead.
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First, Jefferson’s 42-yard run set up a 20-yard TD pass from Ferguson to Wright. On the next series, Mozai Nelson sacked Cooper, who fumbled, and Sterling Sheffield recovered at the JSU 15. Three plays later, Edwards reversed direction on a 1-yard TD run.
The Black Bears put an exclamation on the half with an eight-play, 99-yard drive capped by Jefferson’s 24-yard run.
“They came up with two big drives. They answered back and that’s what good football teams do. That was a huge turning point,” Grass said.
The Gamecocks reached the UMaine 12-yard line on the opening drive of the second half but had to settle for Cade Stinnett’s 30-yard field goal.
UMaine responded with a 10-play, 75-yard drive capped by a 3-yard pass from Ferguson to Belcher on a trick play. Ferguson pretended to lose control of the ball near the ground, then popped up and lofted it to Belcher.
“Credit to Boise State, we saw them run that play on YouTube,” Ferguson said.
Zerrick’s 1-yard TD run cut the deficit to 49-24 but the Gamecocks had to settle for another Stinnett field goal four seconds into the fourth quarter after reaching the UM 5 after the Black Bear defense again stiffened.
Jefferson added a clinching, 1-yard TD run with 1:57 left.
Traco Williams and Marlon Bridges had eight tackles each for JSU.