The University of Maine Black Bears run out to the field before the start of their home opener against Colgate at Alfond Stadium on Saturday, September 10, 2022. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

ORONO, Maine — University of Maine football coach Jordan Stevens said one of the primary keys to his team’s chances of upsetting Colonial Athletic Association preseason favorite Villanova was limiting Villanova’s big plays.

He was right but, unfortunately for him, his defense simply couldn’t do so.

The Wildcats scored on six of their first seven possessions and had 12 plays of 14 or more yards, including nine in the first half alone, en route to an impressive 45-20 victory at Alfond Stadium Saturday afternoon.

Villanova is now 3-2 overall and 1-1 in the Colonial Athletic Association, while UMaine fell to 0-4 and 0-1. It is UMaine’s first 0-4 start since 1994.

It was Villanova’s ninth straight road win against Football Championship Subdivision opponents.

Villanova junior quarterback Connor Watkins completed 13 of 16 passes on the afternoon for 255 yards and four touchdowns, all to senior wide receiver Jaaron Hayek, who caught a total of five passes for 159 yards. His four TD catches ties him for second-most in a game in Villanova history.

Watkins also rushed for 41 yards on five carries and was able to maneuver in the pocket to give his receivers more time to get open.W

Safety Ethan Potter’s game-high 11 tackles and safety Ty Trinh’s seven paced Villanova’s defense, while end Xavier Mitchell’s nine tackles and seven apiece by Shakur Smalls and Kahzir “Buggs” Brown led UMaine.

UMaine quarterback Joe Fagnano was 24-for-38 for 192 yards. Shawn Bowman caught seven passes for 55 yards and Kobay White had five for 57.

Watkins, in his first year as a starter after backing two-time All-CAA quarterback Daniel Smith for two seasons, completed his first 13 passes as the Wildcat offense moved the ball down the field at will against UMaine’s overmatched defense.

Villanova, ranked 14th in one national poll and 15th in another, built a 31-14 halftime lead and scored on its first possession of the second half to all but sew up the win.

Villanova took the opening kickoff and marched 49 yards on eight plays, with Matthew Mercurio’s 39-yard field goal supplying the Wildcats a lead they would never relinquish.

The next four drives produced touchdowns.

The Wildcats drove 41 yards on six plays on their next possession to make it 10-0 on Jalen Jackson’s 5-yard run.

The Black Bears had a glimmer of hope when junior wide receiver Montigo Moss made a highlight reel-worthy one-handed 9-yard TD catch from Fagnano.

The Wildcats answered with a 65-yard drive that was capped by Watkins’ 4-yard pass to Hayek with 7:58 left in the half after Watkins had scrambled for a first down on a third-and-12 play to extend the drive.

Watkins tossed an 83-yard pass to Hayek to make it 24-7 with 4:40 left in the half.

It was tied for the fourth-longest completion and TD pass in Villanova history.

The Black Bears responded 2:30 later when Fagnano’s pass bounced off the hands of safety Jalen Goodman into the arms of Zavier Scott for a 30-yard TD.

But Villanova again used big plays to extend the lead to 31-14 as Watkins and Hayek teamed up on an 18-yard connection to finish off a five-play, 71-yard drive with 1:01 left in the half.

Watkins and Hayek made it 38-14 with a 42-yard TD hookup early in the third period.

It was the 11th time this season Watkins had completed a pass of at least 40 yards.

UMaine scored on the first play of the fourth quarter as running back Elijah Barnwell tossed a 9-yard TD pass to Shawn Bowman.

But Goodman’s 23-yard TD return of his first career interception closed out the scoring.

“We knew what they were going to try to take away. We wanted to establish the run early to set up the passing game and it worked,” said Watkins, who has been Hayek’s roommate for four years.

“We have chemistry off the field and on the field,” he said. “But I have confidence in all of our receivers. [Hayek’s] just the one who has been seeing the majority of the numbers.”

UMaine head coach Jordan Stevens said the team has to do a better job tackling and that the defense has to “get off the field” on third down.

“Third downs are so important. We weren’t effective doing that. And giving up big plays isn’t a recipe for winning,” Stevens said.

He also felt it was important to get off to a good start and that didn’t happen, either.

Pivotal play: With UMaine trailing just 10-7 in the second quarter after Moss’ TD reception, the Wildcats were facing a third-and-12 at their 33-yard line.

Watkins dropped back to pass and the Black Bears appeared to have him wrapped up for a sack. He wiggled his way out the tackle and then cleverly faked out another UMaine defender in a one-on-one to pick up 15 yards and the first down.

Villanova eventually scored and that was a huge momentum changer.

“Two of their guys grabbed my shirt by the shoulder pads,” said Watkins, who broke free and then put a fake on the next would-be tackler to get around him. “I had to do whatever I could to move the sticks.”

Big takeaway: Villanova is a very good football team with explosive playmakers and UMaine has to go back to the drawing board. UMaine’ defense was torn apart for 466 yards by the Wildcat offense and has to get better in a hurry.

Up next: UMaine visits first-year CAA member Hampton (Virginia) on Saturday at 2 p.m. Villanova has next weekend off and will travel to Richmond for a 3:30 p.m. game on Oct. 15.