It was a matter of inches.
University of Maine wide receiver Devin Young was trying to fight his way into the end zone late in the third period after catching a pass from quarterback Joe Fagnano with UMaine trailing Delaware 27-24.
But as he stretched out, the ball came loose and went through the end zone for a touchback, which gave the ball back to Delaware.
The Blue Hens later strung together a penalty-aided eight-play, 77-yard drive capped by Khory Spruill’s 2-yard touchdown and the nation’s fifth-ranked team posted a 34-24 victory in a mutual Colonial Athletic Association opener in front of 5,548 fans at Morse Field.
The Black Bears spotted the Blue Hens a 17-0 lead before storming back for 24 unanswered points to take a seven-point lead into the half.
But they never scored again.
The Blue Hens regained the lead in the third quarter en route to scoring 17 unanswered second-half points.
Delaware quarterback Nolan Henderson threw a 66-yard touchdown pass to Thyrick Pitts to tie it as Pitts caught the ball in traffic and broke two tackles.
“That was extraordinary,” Delaware coach Danny Rocco said.
Ryan Coe kicked a 20-yard field goal later in the third period to give Delaware the lead for good before Spruill supplied the Blue Hens some valuable breathing room with 8:01 left.
Rocco said Young’s fumble was the biggest play of the game.
“I thought Thyrick’s play changed the momentum. But when [UMaine] didn’t score there, I thought they were going to have trouble finding a way to win the game,” Rocco said.
Rocco credited cornerback Nijuel Hill with making a play to help force the fumble and said Hill has made several big plays for the Hens over the years.
“I have complete trust in Devin,” Fagnano said. “He made a great catch and was trying to make a big play for the offense. Unfortunately, that didn’t go our way.”
The Black Bears were hurt by nine penalties for 73 yards. Several were especially costly, with an illegal shift penalty snuffing out a first down on a promising drive to open the third period. UMaine wound up punting.
On Delaware’s fourth-quarter touchdown drive, an unsportsmanlike sideline penalty and a pass interference call aided the drive.
Delaware had one penalty for 8 yards.
“Penalties can create as much momentum as big plays,” Rocco said.
“We shot ourselves in the foot,” Fagnano said. “We took penalties and didn’t execute on offense in the second half.”
UMaine head coach Nick Charlton said he was very disappointed with the loss.
“I thought we had them on the ropes. But we didn’t finish the game,” Charlton said.
“The guys worked extremely hard to get themselves in position to win the football game but we didn’t execute in the second half. We had turnovers, we couldn’t get the run game going and we gave up some explosives [plays],” Charlton said.
“There are going to be penalties in a game but when they are self-inflicted, that’s inexcusable,” he said.
He added that you can’t make a lot of mistakes and expect to beat a Delaware team that reached the Football Championship Subdivision semifinals this past spring.
Colby Reeder intercepted a Fagnano pass that deflected off the fingers of a UMaine receiver midway through the fourth quarter as UMaine tried to climb back into the game down 34-24. The interception came one play after an ineligible receiver downfield penalty erased a 6-yard completion from Fagnano to Andre Miller that moved the ball to the Delaware 38.
Henderson’s 15-yard scramble staked the Blue Hens to a 7-0 lead just 5:50 into the game. It was the only scoring in the first period.
Coe’s 33-yard field goal 1:24 into the second quarter and a nice lunging 55-yard reception by Gene Coleman II from Henderson made it 17-0 with 11:23 left in the half.
But the Black Bears rallied with three touchdowns in a span of 6:22 to take a 21-17 lead and Jonny Messina kicked a 32-yard field goal with 1 second remaining to build the lead to seven.
Fagnano began the rally with a 28-yard touchdown pass to an open Michael Monios across the middle.
That touchdown snapped a string of 68 unanswered points by the Blue Hens against the Black Bears spanning across three games.
Two possessions later, Zavier Scott curled out of the backfield and got behind safety Andrew Pawlowski before hauling in a Fagnano pass and racing down the left sideline for a 59-yard touchdown.
With 2:07 left in the half, Monios broke through and blocked a Tyler Pastula punt and sophomore wide receiver Montigo Moss picked the ball up at the 4-yard line and carried it into the end zone.
After Delaware went three-and-out, UMaine regained the ball with 1:08 left and marched 44 yards on eight plays before Messina drilled his 32-yard field goal with the wind.
Henderson opened the scoring by racing untouched into the end zone on a third-and-five scramble.
UMaine’s offense managed just 20 total yards in the first period, with a pass from Fagnano to Shawn Bowman representing 17 of those yards.
Coe’s field goal finished off a 10-play 33-yard drive before Coleman stretched out to gather in Henderson’s throw down the left sideline.
Henderson completed 14 of 29 passes for 262 yards and two touchdowns. Coleman II and Thyrick each caught five passes for 120 and 116 yards, respectively. It was the first time since 2009 that Delaware had two receivers go over 100 yards in a game. Dejoun Lee gained 59 yards on 16 carries. Reeder and Pawlowski led the defense with seven tackles each.
Fagnano completed 24 of 41 passes for 304 yards and two touchdowns. Young caught six passes for 48 yards and Monios and Miller each had four receptions.
Elijah Barnwell had 37 of UMaine’s 55 rushing yards on 10 carries.
Campbell University (North Carolina) transfer Ray Miller had a game-high 12 tackles, safety Fofie Bazzie had eight and lineback Xavier Nurse had seven, as did end Jamehl Wiley.
Rocco called the win “extraordinary considering we gave up 24 unanswered points, had a punt blocked for a touchdown and we were on the road. The guys showed grit and determination.”
UMaine travels to take on No. 2 James Madison (Virginia) a week from Saturday.