ORONO — The University of Maine put in a bid to host an NCAA football playoff game, should it reach the postseason.

On Saturday, the Black Bears made those playoffs a near certainty.

Maine rallied from an 11-point deficit to beat Massachusetts 32-21 before 4,428 at Alfond Stadium.

Maine improved to 8-2 — eight wins practically guaranteeing an NCAA berth — and remains in a first-place tie in the Colonial Athletic Association with a 6-1 record.

“There’s a sense of accomplishment to be 6-1 and 8-2,” Maine Coach Jack Cosgrove said. “Let’s face it, that doesn’t happen a lot, especially here in Orono, Maine.”

Maine is tied with Towson (8-2, 7-1), a 56-42 winner over New Hampshire on Saturday. Next week Maine will play New Hampshire (7-3, 6-2) in the final regular-season game. Towson plays Rhode Island.

“This is a big week for us,” said running back Pushaun Brown, who recovered from a thigh injury to rush for 144 yards.

Defense carried the Black Bears on Saturday, creating three turnovers in the last 16 minutes, all three resulting in touchdowns:

Linebacker Troy Russell recovered a fumble in the air and returned it 60 yards for a touchdown. Lineman Erwin Roach knocked the ball loose from quarterback Ray Pendagast.

Linebacker Arron Achey intercepted Pendagast in UMass territory, setting up quarterback Warren Smith’s go-ahead 6-yard touchdown run. Lineman Michael Cole pressured Pendagast on the throw.

Cole recovered a fumble in the end zone after a hit by Russell, sealing the win with 1:01 to go.

“That’s how we won the football game,” Cosgrove said. “This is one of those days when we were in a hole. Our defense created the opportunities.”

Maine began the game by driving deep into UMass territory twice but getting only three points.

“We didn’t finish the drives,” said Smith (14 of 25 for 184 yards and an interception). “I missed a bunch of throws.”

Special teams played a role. UMass missed two field goals (30 and 42 yards), while Brian Harvey of Maine was 2 for 4, good from 22 and 30 yards, failed from 34 and 29.

Maine also had a punt blocked with 1:35 left in the first half at the Black Bears’ 24. That led to a 2-yard TD run by Jonathan Hernandez (105 yards on 31 carries), for a 14-10 UMass halftime lead.

On Maine’s first drive of the second half, UMass linebacker Shane Viveiros intercepted Smith and returned it 26 yards for a touchdown and a 21-10 Minutemen lead.

“But we’ve been in that spot before,” Cosgrove said. “We just had to have something happen.”

Maine caught breaks. A 2-yard Hernandez touchdown run was called back because of holding penalty. UMass eventually missed a field goal.

A 40-yard Smith to Damarr Aultman pass set up a Harvey field goal, closing to 21-13.

Later, Pendagast, the third-string quarterback, behind two injured quarterbacks, gave up the fumble to Russell. His score and an incomplete two-point conversion try closed to 21-19.

Later, UMass had the ball on its 19. Achey made his interception, returning to the 14.

On third down from the 6, Smith ran a quarterback draw into the end zone for the winning score with 3:26 left.

“Not our best performance offensively but the best thing is we got the win,” Smith said.

“Now we get ready for a big game next weekend.”

Staff Writer Kevin Thomas can be contacted at 791-6411 or at: [email protected]

Twitter: ClearTheBases