The University of Maine’s Football Championship Subdivision playoff hopes appeared to be dashed on Saturday afternoon when the University of Rhode Island took a 27-13 lead with just 9:52 remaining.
But the Black Bears scored three touchdowns, capped by true freshman quarterback Joe Fagnano’s 11-yard pass to Earnest Edwards with 34 seconds left, to pull off a 34-30 Colonial Athletic Association victory on Morse Field in Orono.
“The players really stepped up and found a way to win the game,” said UMaine head coach Nick Charlton, whose team overcame a listless first-half offensive performance and erased two 14-point second-half deficits.
UMaine is now 6-5 overall and 4-3 in the CAA after winning its fourth straight game. The Black Bears conclude the regular season next Saturday at New Hampshire, needing a win to remain in playoff contention.
URI (2-9 overall, 0-7 CAA), has now lost 13 straight contests against UMaine, which has won the last 10 meetings in Orono.
Down two touchdowns, Emmanuel Reed’s 12-yard run with 8:24 left and Joe Fitzpatrick’s 3-yard run with 3:16 to play tied the game 27-all. Then, after UMaine’s defense limited URI to a C.J. Carrick 29-yard field goal with 1:49 remaining, the Black Bears put together a five-play, 81-yard drive to win it.
A 44-yard pass from Fagnano to Devin Young down the left sideline jump-started the game-winning drive and Fagnano completed a 12-yarder to Fitzpatrick and a 15-yarder to Jacob Hennie, who was filling in for senior captain and leading receiver Jaquan Blair.
Blair was suspended for one game for violating team rules.
Fagnano then hit Edwards in the left corner of the end zone. The reception gave Edwards a game-high 259 total yards on the day. He caught five passes for 58 yards, ran the ball three times for 73 yards, returned four kickoffs for 100 yards and took back a punt for 28 yards.
“He made us pay for not making plays on him,” URI defensive end Andre Bibeault said.
“Everyone knows he’s a pretty special player. He was spectacular,” said UMaine senior defensive end and captain Kayon Whitaker, who was involved in 10 tackles with a sack.
The Black Bears did a much better job getting the ball to playmakers Edwards and Young in the second half, including productive jet sweeps. Young wound up with four receptions for 67 yards and a touchdown and carried the ball three times for 32 yards, all in the second half.
“We started clicking in the second half,” said Fagnano, who completed six of seven passes for 110 yards in the fourth quarter. “We like to spread the ball around to make the defense cover the entire field and we were able to get the ball to our playmakers in space.”
“Our offense played very poorly in the first half but our defense kept us in it. The defense played very well. They won the game for us,” Charlton added.
Naim Jones carried the ball 31 times for a career-high 167 yards and scored two TDs for URI. Vito Priore threw an 8-yard TD pass to Ahmere Dorsey and Carrick kicked two field goals and missed two.
Fagnano (20-for-29, 216 yds., 2 TDs) completed a 19-yard TD pass to Young in the third quarter before his late-game heroics.
Maine’s Kenny Doak was 2-for-2 with field goals of 28 and 34 yards.
The presence of Hennie (career-high 5 catches, 52 yds) was important because UMaine also was missing injured wide receiver Andre Miller and starting tight end Shawn Bowman.
Aaron Parker caught five passes for 113 yards for URI and Dorsey made four receptions for 50 yards.
The Rams’ CAA-worst defense (34.7 points, 452.6 yards per game), limited the Black Bears to 83 yards and three points in the first half to build a 10-3 halftime lead.
Forty-eight of those yards came on UMaine’s last drive which resulted in Doak’s 28-yard field goal with eight seconds left. The hosts picked up a first down on their first offensive play, a 20-yard pass from Fagnano to Edwards, but didn’t get another one until 1:08 left in the half.
URI could have led by much more if it wasn’t for the UMaine defense.
URI methodically moved down the field on the game’s opening drive and Jones capped it with a 2-yard run. Darius Perrantes completed 9 of 18 passes for 68 yards in the first half but injured his index finger and was replaced by CAA passing leader Priore in the second half (9 of 18, 137 yds.).
URI coach Jim Fleming thought his team had control of the game but squandered scoring opportunities.
“We had tremendous field position but didn’t capitalize,” Fleming said.
UMaine’s defense often found itself on short fields but was able to limit the damage.
Linebacker Taji Lowe made a game-high 10 tackles for UMaine. Adrian Otero joined Whitaker with 10 tackles.
Keith Wells (sack) and Momodou Mbye logged six each for URI.