Their offense had completely stalled: Three series, nine plays, three punts.
Their halftime lead was lost.
Their defense was on its heels, recipient of a powerful, straight-ahead running game from a physical Stony Brook opponent determined to pin the first loss on the only Colonial Athletic Association football team without one.
So what happened to the Black Bears of the University of Maine Saturday afternoon in Orono?
Like so many other times in this magical autumn, they found a way to win.
Quarterback Marcus Wasilewski connected on five of six passes as the Black Bears drove 91 yards in the fourth quarter for the go-ahead touchdown in a 19-14 victory that, coupled with Delaware’s improbable comeback in the final minute against Towson, gave Maine a clear path to the CAA title.
“That’s not the kind of game Maine has won in the past,” said head coach Jack Cosgrove, who extolled the resiliency of his senior core. “The kind of player you need in that kind of game is one whose will isn’t broken by the lack of success that you’ve had up to that point.”
The guys who caught the four passes of more than 10 yards in that drive — Derrick Johnson for 14, Justin Perillo for 18, John Ebeling for 34 (by leaping above a defender to make the catch on 3rd and 11) and 24 (the touchdown after a screen fake by Wasilewski) — are all seniors in their fifth fall on campus, having red-shirted their freshman season of 2009.
Ditto for linebacker Troy Eastman and defensive end Michael Cole. On Saturday, Eastman made a critical red-zone interception near the end of the third quarter and Cole notched a pair of sacks to become Maine’s career leader in that category, with 28.
“Those guys were persistent as all heck to get the win,” Cosgrove said during a Monday morning CAA conference call. “It’s a tribute to them. “
The rewards came Monday afternoon, as the Black Bears (8-1) moved to eighth in The Sports Network poll and ninth in the Football Championship Subdivision Coaches poll, up from 10th and 11th, respectively. Towson (8-2) dropped from seventh to 13th in one poll and sixth to 11th in the other after blowing a 31-10 fourth-quarter lead at home.
Delaware senior quarterback Trevor Sasek, making his first start of the season, threw two touchdown passes and a game-winning two-point conversion in the final 48 seconds, which also included a successful onside kick.
“The ball bounced right for us a couple times,” said Delaware head coach Dave Brock, whose Blue Hens (7-2 overall, 4-1 CAA) won 32-31 to remain the only CAA team with one conference loss.
That puts Maine (5-0) in prime position for the CAA’s automatic berth and a likely bye in the 24-team NCAA tournament.
Maine would win any head-to-head tiebreaker with Delaware thanks to a 62-28 victory in Orono in early October. So if the Black Bears win two of their final three games — at Albany (1-8), home against Rhode Island (3-7) and at New Hampshire (4-4) — they would clinch the conference title.
Cosgrove declined to speculate Monday, preferring to stay with the one-week-at-a-time outlook that has served the Black Bears well since August.
“That’s how we operate here,” he said. “I’m holding (the players) accountable. They need to hold me accountable for staying on that plan as well.”
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Red-shirt freshman middle linebacker Christophe Mulumba earned his third CAA Rookie of the Week award after leading the Black Bears with 13 tackles Saturday and helping hold Stony Brook to 129 passing yards. Mulumba was also honored after the Bryant and Richmond games.
“The type of game that Stony Brook played Saturday is Chris’s type of game,” Cosgrove said. “He’s a physical kid and an aggressive kid for sure. With their size and downhill approach, we needed to get a lot of hats to the ball, and Chris was certainly at the forefront of that.”
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Stony Brook put plenty of pressure on Wasilewski, who was sacked five times and hurried into several throwaways. Much of that pressure came from his blind side, where left tackle Tyler Patterson had his hands full with sophomore defensive end Victor Ochi.
“That was a difficult spot for us,” Cosgrove said. “A lot of it was four-man pressure. It wasn’t coming from blitz or anything like that. It was their guy beating our guy.”
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Four of Maine’s five road games have involved chartered plane trips. Their final two games will involve bus rides, beginning with a 409-mile journey to Albany, N.Y., for Saturday’s 3:30 game against a Great Danes squad that has won three of their past four meetings, including 3-0 in 2010 and 30-20 in 2012, both in Orono.
“So they have our utmost respect,” Cosgrove said. “They’re a competitive, well-coached football operation.”
UAlbany is 1-8 overall and 0-5 in CAA in its first year in the conference, after posting a 9-2 record last fall.
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Eight teams will earn byes in the FCS tournament, scheduled to begin Nov. 30th. The Sports Network’s current bracket projection lists Maine as the fourth seed, which would mean a second-round home playoff game on Dec. 7.
Towson (8-2, 4-2 CAA) is projected as the eighth seed by The Sports Network. Head coach Rob Ambrose said his team welcomes an upcoming bye weekend and remains frustrated by Saturday’s stunning loss despite a third 200-yard rushing performance by Terrance West.
“We’re great when we’re coming from behind, we’re great with a chip on our shoulder and we’re great when we’re playing with something to prove,” Ambrose said. “But staying on top of the hill and keeping that land our own is still something we’re learning to do.”