The hero was a sophomore quarterback named Mike Buck. The place was Hancock Stadium on the Illinois State campus. The setting was the final game of the 1987 regular season for the University of Maine football team.
At stake was a place in the postseason football playoffs for teams then designated I-AA by the NCAA. Maine had not reached the playoffs before. If Maine beat Illinois State, a member of the Missouri Valley Conference, the chances were good it would be invited to the party. Lose, and the Black Bears would fly back to Orono to hand in their helmets and pads.
Maine won, 37-34. Buck found Scott Venditto for an 18-yard touchdown pass with less than four minutes to play. Maine’s defense held. The shootout victory pushed Maine into the playoffs with an 8-3 record. Twenty-five years ago the boys of autumn were the big story.
Twenty-five years later that game, that team and the Mike Buck tenure were forgotten when Maine football fans voted on the school’s website in August for their top 10 moments. No votes, no mentions, no love.
That’s not right. As Maine football this year celebrates its first 1,000 games, remember there was a time when the state university’s team needed to step up and prove itself for the first time. On a sunny afternoon in mid-November in Normal, Ill., this was that moment.
Buck, a 6-foot-3, 227-pound athlete from New York’s Long Island, had balky knees that limited his mobility, but a right arm that seemingly could throw the football for miles.
“He was an NFL quarterback playing a college game,” said Sergio Hebra, his favorite receiver in 1987. “He was so confident. You couldn’t think of him as a sophomore. When he stepped into the huddle, he was in command.”
Buck passed for 303 yards and four touchdowns. Jeff Knox caught four balls for 180 yards and scored twice. Doug Dorsey scored on a 1-yard pass, set up by a 52-yard pass to Knox. Venditto got the fourth and winning TD pass.
Hebra’s great hands and instincts served him better as a decoy that day. “I was shut out. I never got into the end zone. It seemed like someone was always in front of me and behind me.” Hebra returns to Orono occasionally in the fall. He has worked undercover in security.
The game was a matchup of different offenses. Illinois State relied more on a rushing game that ate up the clock with scoring drives of four and five minutes. Buck needed less than two minutes sometimes to get Maine a touchdown after Illinois State scored.
Illinois State led 14-0 before Buck went to work. His touchdown pass to Dorsey just before the first half ended gave Maine a 23-20 lead.
“It was quite a first half,” said Nick Penna, an inside linebacker. “I made 14, 15 tackles and you know that couldn’t be good.” Penna was the emotional leader, the heart of a defense that was on the field for long stretches in the first half. In fact, Penna didn’t play in the second half. He had hurt his shoulder.
Maine found the will and the way to win. Illinois State came into the game with a 3-5 record. Its mission was to spoil Maine’s season.
“Absolutely I can remember the game,” said Kevin White, now the athletic director at Duke University. Twenty-five years ago he was Maine’s AD.
“The most vivid memory I have is standing on top of the roof of the Illinois State press box with (then Illinois State and current Wake Forest AD) Ron Wellman watching this air show unfold.
“Our quarterback, Mike Buck, was simply spectacular in what was a historic moment and game for Maine.”
Maine was in the NCAA football playoffs for the first time, drawing Georgia Southern, a perennial power, for its first game. Maine had the lead before losing 31-28 in overtime.
“That’s the game we talk about most when we get together,” said Penna, now a financial adviser in Providence, R.I. He shrugged off whatever pain lingered in his shoulder and played that day. “We had them. We should have won. It seemed like we had studs up and down our lineup. That was quite a team.”
Steve Violette of Winslow played next to Penna at linebacker. So did Andy Nickerson of Brewer. Scott Hough was part of the big offensive line that protected Buck. James Fox was the running back. Claude Pettaway was a defensive back. Bob Wilder, the quarterback from Madison, had lost his job to Buck.
Defensive lineman Justin Strzelczyk was on this team. He would switch to the offensive line for a successful career with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Buck became a backup for the New Orleans Saints.
Tim Murphy, now at Harvard, was the head coach before taking the head coaching job at Cincinnati. Jack Cosgrove was an assistant coach.
Maine’s victory over Mississippi State, a I-A opponent, was voted the top moment. Beating McNeese State for the first win in the NCAA playoffs was voted the runner-up. Certainly they were watershed games.
But don’t forget Maine’s win over Illinois State for that first trip to the playoffs. Maine football doesn’t always rise to the occasion. That day in 1987 it most certainly did.
Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: