ORONO – Three times, upset-minded Bryant University had a chance to extend a nine-point lead against a University of Maine football team that was seeing its home opener starting to unravel.
A potential touchdown pass well behind the Maine secondary was dropped.
A fourth-down conversion attempt was overthrown.
A second fourth-down pass in Maine territory failed.
Given new life, the Black Bears roared back with a pair of touchdowns just before halftime and rolled to a 35-22 victory over Bryant Saturday afternoon before a crowd of 5,863 at Alfond Stadium.
“It doesn’t feel at all like last week, that’s for sure,” said Maine Coach Jack Cosgrove, referring to a 24-14 victory over the University of Massachusetts, now a Football Bowl Subdivision program, at Gillette Stadium. “But it’s a win. And we appreciate winning, because each and every week that’s what we’re in the business for.”
The Black Bears (3-0) had their hands full with Bryant (2-1), a program in its third season of Division I and with far fewer full-time scholarship equivalencies than Maine’s 63.
“I would guess we’re about a third of them,” said Bryant Coach Marty Fine, whose Bulldogs lost 51-3 to Maine a year ago in Rhode Island.
“Any time you’re playing up a level, which is what this is, you have to limit the number of possessions and the number of snaps your defense plays, and I don’t think we did a very good job of that.”
Bryant bottled up Maine’s running game in the first half, allowing only 29 yards on the ground.
After Maine took a 7-0 lead on its opening drive — thanks to 39-yard completion from Marcus Wasilewski to John Ebeling and a 3-yard Wasilewski scoring run — the Black Bears stalled. Five drives yielded a single first down.
Meanwhile, Bryant marched downfield behind the running of Paul Caneveri and Ricardo McCray and the passing of Mike Westerhaus, mainly to wide receiver Jordan Harris (99 yards on six catches in the first quarter).
Caneveri scored on runs of 7 and 42 yards and McCray blocked a Jeffrey Ondish punt that bounced through the end zone for a safety and a 16-7 Bryant lead.
“I think those were the two best backs we’ve seen thus far,” said Maine linebacker Troy Eastman. “And the offensive line came off the ball harder than any offensive line we’ve seen thus far as well.”
Indeed, Bryant rolled up 460 yards of offense to Maine’s 444, but converted only one of two opportunities in the red zone to Maine’s 4-for-4 performance.
As for the elusive Harris, who finished with nine catches and 182 yards, “their receiver can play for anybody,” Cosgrove said. “He’s the best one we’ve seen.”
Momentum turned in the final four minutes of the half. Wasilewski saw a blitz coming and threw a quick slant to Damarr Aultmann, who broke it for 51 yards and a touchdown, the first of four Wasilewski scoring passes.
He finished with 23 of 32 for 263 yards and no interceptions.
One play later, Eastman intercepted a Westerhaus pass near midfield and returned it 22 yards, setting up a 16-yard strike from Wasilewski to Derrick Johnson and Maine led 21-16 at halftime.
“I liked how our guys kept their poise,” Cosgrove said. “We finally figured some things out and I thought we did a nice job in the second half.”
Rain fell early in the third quarter, and with it sprang a resurrected running game for the Black Bears, who lost tailback Zedric Joseph to a leg injury in the second quarter. Rickey Stevens gained 67 yards on 10 carries, Nigel Jones 49 on 11 and Wasilewski pitched in with 67 yards on 10 carries, none bigger than a 34-yard scramble to set up a 17-yard touchdown pass to tight end Justin Perillo for a 28-16 lead.
Another long drive ended with an 8-yard strike to redshirt freshman Jordan Dunn, his first collegiate touchdown, on the final play of the third quarter for a 35-16 lead. The game’s final score came on a 58-yard pass from Westerhaus to Harris with under two minutes remaining.
“I thought we maintained our composure,” said Bryant’s Fine. “We kept playing. But I think they’re better than us. I think their players are just a little bit bigger, and just a little bit stronger and a little bit faster, and I think their head coach is better than me. We’re going to work to correct all those things.”
The Black Bears travel to No. 17 Northwestern next Saturday before opening their Colonial Athletic Association schedule against Richmond in Virginia.
Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at: