ORONO — Belief.

That’s what Joe Harasymiak has been preaching to the University of Maine football team for a year. Belief in the team. Belief in what can be accomplished.

And Saturday afternoon, the Black Bears accomplished something no one foresaw four months ago. Picked to finish eighth in the Colonial Athletic Association preseason poll, Maine earned the league’s outright championship with a 27-26 win over Elon at Alfond Stadium.

The Black Bears needed one last defensive stand to clinch their first CAA title since 2013 and got it when linebacker Sterling Sheffield hit Elon quarterback Daniel Thompson as Thompson was throwing a fourth-down pass, forcing a fluttering incompletion with 58 seconds remaining that clinched the win.

“This is just … I really can’t describe it,” said Harasymiak. “To be so close the last two years, being in November and not getting it done, being 1-5, the same core group of guys coming back … you preach a message and they’ve believed in it and this is the result.”

The victory lifted Maine to 8-3 overall and 7-1 in the CAA. Elon, playing for its playoff life, dropped to 6-4, 4-3. Maine will find out Sunday where it will slot into the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision playoffs in the selection show that starts at 12:30 p.m. Harasymiak firmly believes his Black Bears have earned a first-round bye.

“I’ll be straight up,” he said. “We’re the single champ in the best conference in the country. That’s all I’ve got to say.”

Maine lost starting quarterback Chris Ferguson in the second quarter when he reinjured his right shoulder. But while the Black Bears’ offense struggled, special teams and defense carried them.

Earnest Edwards broke two kickoff returns for touchdowns, of 95 and 93 yards – becoming the first player in Maine history with two kick-off returns for touchdowns in the same game – and Kenny Doak kicked two field goals, the second set up by a blocked punt.

“You can’t give up 17 points on special teams and expect to win,” said Elon Coach Curt Cignetti.

Maine appeared to take control in the third quarter. After Skyler Davis of Elon kicked a 39-yard field goal to pull within 17-13, Edwards took the ensuing kickoff 93 yards up the middle for a touchdown. Daniel Rymer then blocked a punt, setting up Doak’s 19-yard field goal that made it 27-13 with 6:22 left in the period.

But Thompson rallied the Phoenix.

He threw a 32-yard touchdown pass to Cole Taylor, then led drives resulting in two more Davis field goals and Elon trailed 27-26 with 4:33 left in the game.

The Phoenix had one last chance, getting the ball with 3:07 left at their 47. Jaron Grayer intercepted Thompson but fumbled on the return and Elon recovered at its 39.

The drive got to the Maine 42. But after two incomplete passes, the Phoenix faced a fourth-and-5.

Maine called a timeout with 1:03 left and changed its defense.

“I thought using that timeout was important in terms of just gathering the guys together and giving them the call so we’re all on the same page,” said Harasymiak. “Ultimately we made the right call.”

Originally the Black Bears were going to stunt their four defensive linemen, but instead went with a speed rush. Sheffield came around the right tackle and hit Thompson’s arm as he threw, the ball fluttering incomplete.

“Definitely one of the memorable plays of my career,” said Sheffield. “Just happy to help my team.”

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: MikeLowePPH

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