STARKVILLE, Miss. – True character often is exhibited under the most difficult of circumstances.
Saturday night, facing the possibility of being humbled by Southeastern Conference member Mississippi State, the University of Maine football team instead demonstrated tremendous resilience and fortitude.
Playing on the grandest stage to host a Black Bear team, UMaine pulled off the biggest upset in program history.
UMaine forced three turnovers inside its own 5-yard line and mounted a game-winning 80-yard scoring drive in the fourth quarter while shocking Division I-A Mississippi State
9-7 at Davis Wade Stadium.
“They did what you have to do to win,” said Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom. “We moved the ball up the field and had plenty of opportunities to score, but we did not take advantage of it.”
Despite spotting the Bulldogs (1-2) an advantage in size, speed and depth, coach Jack Cosgrove’s I-AA squad (2-1) earned the UMaine’s first win ever against a I-A team. It came in front of 43,486 stunned fans, the most ever to witness a Black Bear football game.
“It’s exhilarating as heck,” Cosgrove said. “We came down here to win a football game, but sometimes that’s a little bit tougher to do than when you talk about it.”
The game wasn’t decided until MSU quarterback Omarr Conner’s “Hail Mary” pass landed incomplete in the back of the end zone as time expired.
Few dared to believe UMaine was capable of such an upset.
“The only people that knew we were going to win this game were the guys in the locker room, our families who braved it to come down here,” said senior Christian Pereira. “It’s not really a shock to us.”
Leading 7-3, MSU threatened to put the game away midway through the fourth quarter. The hosts marched 69 yards on 11 plays to the UM 6-yard line.
The Bears appeared to be tiring, but took a timeout. On 2nd-and-goal, halfback Fred Reid raced around right end. He was hit and fumbled the ball into the end zone and out of bounds.
The result was a touchback that gave UMaine the ball at its own 20 with 6:59 to play.
“We were pretty tired, but the main thing was that we never quit, we just bounced back every play,” said strong safety Joan Quezada.
That’s when UMaine’s offense came out of hibernation by implementing its two-minute drill. Ron Whitcomb (10-for-19, 124 yards) opened the series by hitting Ryan Waller on a 20-yard crossing pattern.
With tailback Marcus Williams (57 yds.) having left the game with a sore shoulder, Montell Owens carried four times for 16 yards in the next five plays. On 3rd-and-5 from the MSU 42, Waller made a leaping catch of a Whitcomb pass for a key 25-yard pickup to the 17-yard line.
“Our plan was we were going to stay close early and then in the second half we’d start to cut it loose a little more with some of the play calling,” said offensive coordinator Bobby Wilder. “When we got to that final drive our kids were ready to pass protect, to do the things we needed to do to go down and score.”
On the next play, Kevin McMahan snared a low bullet from Whitcomb on a short post pattern in the end zone, putting UMaine in front and sending the Bears’ sideline and its small contingent of fans into a frenzy.
“To be honest with you, I really didn’t expect to get that call, but coach Wilder always throws something at the defense when they’re least expecting it,” Whitcomb said.
“It was the greatest feeling that I’ve had as a player,” he added of the win.
Mike Mellow’s extra-point kick was blocked, leaving UMaine clinging to a 9-7 lead with 2:55 to play.
The Bears pinned their ears back on defense and went after Conner (21-for-34, 250 yds). MSU earned two first downs, but when Conner was called for intentional grounding while being hauled down by Brandon McGowan (12 tackles) and Agean Robinson (8 tackles), the Bulldogs were 28 yards from a first down and couldn’t convert.
MSU fans booed when Croom sent in the punting unit with 1:10 left.
“It was extremely hard for me to make the call, but it was the only logical choice at that point,” Croom said.
UMaine took no chances and came up short on Whitcomb’s 3rd-and-1 sneak at the UM 26. Mellow, who was clutch all night, hit a 45-yard punt that put MSU back at its own 34 with 15 seconds remaining.
The Bulldogs completed a pass, then spiked the ball with two seconds left, before Conner’s bomb fell harmlessly in the back of the end zone.
“The thing that I kept trying to emphasize with the players was that we know how to win, we know how to fight and that’s what it’s going to be. It’s going to be us trying to outfight them, said UMaine defensive coordinator Rich Nagy.
Trailing 7-0, UMaine got on the scoreboard late in the third quarter. Williams’ 24-yard run keyed a 39-yard drive that set up Mellow’s 31-yard field goal with 5:20 left in the quarter.
The Bulldogs threatened three times in the second quarter, but the Bears held.
First, Quezada’s hustling, diving tackle from behind prevented Will Prosser from going all the way on a 61-yard catch. Then, McGowan and Jermaine Walker teamed up for a third-down sack that forced a field-goal attempt. Keith Andrews’ 32-yard try missed to the left.
Jeramie Johnson intercepted a Whitcomb pass on the Bears’ next series and returned it 36 yards to the UM 11. However, on third down, Robinson stripped the ball from Butler on a short pass play, giving the Bears the ball back at their 4.
“He caught it, but I had a hand there and I just kind of snatched it from him,” Robinson said.
After another three-and-out, UMaine’s defense was back on the field. Jerious Norwood ran five times for 36 yards as MSU moved to the UM 14. On 3rd-and-8, cornerback John Baumgartner snuck inside an MSU receiver for a lunging interception at the 2-yard line.
“I was going for the ball and I cut him off and it just turned out great,” Baumgartner said.
The Bears couldn’t move the ball again and Mellow’s rolling 57-yard punt from the end zone bailed out UMaine, which held on to end the half.
“If they’re successful there, the game’s over at halftime,” Cosgrove said of the turnovers.
“Things have got to go your way when you’re a decided underdog and they did,” he added. “Then, as the game marched along, our kids you feel them welling up with confidence, and believed that we could win.”
MSU scored on its second possession of the game. Conner scrambled and found Eric Butler for a 17-yard TD.
The Bears proved immediately they could play with the Bulldogs, earning two first downs and gaining 33 yards on their first possession.
“We didn’t know how fast it was going to be, how much stronger [they were], or if they were going to be more talented,” Williams said. “But I think after that first series when we got the ball, we moved the ball, we got some first downs, right then we knew we could play with them.”
MSU outgained UMaine 374 yards to 226, but the Bears committed only four penalties and had just two turnovers.
BLACK BEARS 9, BULLDOGS 7
Maine (2-1) 0 0 3 6 ? 9
Mississippi St. (1-2) 7 0 0 0 ? 7
MS ? Butler 18 pass from Conner (Andrews kick)
ME ? Mellow 31 field goal
ME ? McMahan 17 pass from Whitcomb (kick blocked)
Maine Miss. State
First downs 10 20
Rushing att.-yards 37-102 37-124
Passing comp.-att. 10-19 21-35
Passing yards 124 250
Total yards 226 374
Punts-avg. 8-46.5 7-44.9
Fumbles-lost 0-0 2-2
Intercepted by 1 2
Penalties-yards 4-24 5-30
Maine: Williams 17-58, Owens 8-28, Whitcomb 10-16, Legree 1-1, team 1-(minus 1); MSU: Reid 18-72, Norwood 10-44, Jones 2-22, Lowe 1-9, Conner 6-(minus 23)
Maine: Whitcomb 10-19-2-124; MSU: Conner 21-34-1-250
Maine: Waller 3-49, Pereira 3-49, McMahan 2-15, Gordon 10-124; MSU: Wright 5-61, Prosser 4-117, Butler 3-32, Milons 2-12, Jones 1-12, Davis 1-8, Husband 1-3, Reid 1-2, Pettit 1-2, Freeman 1-1, Norwood 1-0
KEY PLAYS IN UMAINE VICTORY
. Maine’s John Baumgartner intercepts an Omarr Conner pass at Maine’s 2-yard line with 3:15 left in the first half.
. Maine’s Mike Mellow boots a 31-yard field goal to cut Mississippi State’s lead to 7-3 with 5:20 left in the third quarter.
. Fred Reid of Mississippi State fumbles the ball in the Maine end zone, putting the Black Bears at their own 20-yard line with 6:59 remaining.
. Kevin McMahan catches a 17-yard pass from Black Bear quarterback Ron Whitcomb, lifting Maine to a 9-7 lead with 4:04 left in the game after an eight-play, 80-yard drive.