ORONO — It was a day like no other at Alfond Stadium.
An intercepted pass thrown by a kicker, the longest run from scrimmage in school history and even a sideline interference penalty on Coach Jack Cosgrove – the first of his long career – all added to the unusual nature of Maine’s 41-0 victory over Rhode Island on Saturday before a crowd of 5,067.
But the never-before-seen-here capper was the presentation of the handsome wooden Colonial Athletic Association football trophy as the Black Bears (10-1) clinched their first outright conference championship since 1965, when they were a member of the defunct Yankee Conference.
“These young men,” said Cosgrove, gesturing to all 17 seniors he brought to a postgame press conference, “made everybody in Black Bear Nation real proud today. This is a great accomplishment for our football program.”
Maine, ranked sixth in the nation among Football Championship Subdivision schools, is 7-0 in conference play and winner of 12 straight FCS games. Only once before in the 121-year history of the program have the Black Bears reached double-digit victories. The 2002 club went 11-3 and shared the Atlantic-10 title with Northeastern.
Their only loss came in September at the hands of Northwestern, ranked 16th in the nation among the larger Football Bowl Subdivision programs at the time, and included a $450,000 check for traveling to Illinois and playing the role of David to Northwestern’s Goliath.
In Orono, the Black Bears are undefeated. They beat Bryant, Delaware, William & Mary and Stony Brook before dispatching Rhode Island. An automatic berth in the 24-team NCAA tournament accompanies the CAA title, and Maine is likely to host a second-round game Dec. 7 after earning a first-round bye, although a loss next week in the regular-season finale at rival New Hampshire could cloud the playoff picture.
“This is a great conference,” Cosgrove said, “and for Maine football to stand at the top of it, undefeated going into its final game, is a source of great pride for me personally and for all of these young men in front of you.”
The Black Bears wasted little time Saturday in displaying their dominance. Their first drive required only 25 seconds and two passes, both from Marcus Wasilewski to Art Williams. The first covered 36 yards and the second 21 for a touchdown.
Maine’s second scoring drive was practically a slog, requiring all of four plays. Wasilewski connected with a wide-open Damarr Aultman for a 52-yard score and it was 14-0 with the game not yet six minutes old.
“I think it had a lot to do with what this game meant,” said Wasilewski, honored with his parents in a ceremony before the kickoff along with his classmates and their families. “It was Senior Day. We wanted to come out with a bang. It just all worked out for us.”
The half ended with Maine leading 31-0 but not before several oddities. Rickey Stevens took a handoff, burst through the middle and angled toward the left sideline for a 90-yard touchdown run made possible by wide receiver Derrick Johnson fending off two potential tacklers well downfield.
“He’s my brother,” Johnson said, “so I didn’t want anybody to get their hands on him.”
The longest previous run had been Carl Smith’s 89-yarder against Rutgers in 1991.
A few minutes later, Rhode Island, which ended its season 4-8 overall and 2-6 in conference play, lined up for a 45-yard field- goal attempt. Instead the Rams faked the kick. The holder lateraled to the kicker, whose attempt to toss it back was tipped high in the air by Maine defensive end Mike Cole.
“I don’t know what they were doing,” said Cole, who snatched the ball for an interception and rumbled 16 yards with it. “First time I ever ran with the ball in my life.”
Wasilewski immediately found John Ebeling on the right sideline for a 49-yard touchdown pass and it was 28-0. The Black Bears added the first of two Sean Decloux field goals, from 38 yards, but not before Cosgrove accidentally tripped an official in front of the Maine bench and was flagged for sideline interference.
Maine added a touchdown in the third quarter (a 2-yard run by Stevens, who finished with 125 yards on 14 carries) and a 36-yard field goal in the fourth by Decloux, who was also 5 of 5 on PAT kicks.
“I think Jack called off the dogs, showing some class,” said Rhode Island Coach Joe Trainer, who said he would be pulling for Maine in the playoffs. “He didn’t even feature the quarterback run game that they normally have.”
Trainer said Maine’s ability to run the table – so far – in a conference that includes such well-supported warm-weather programs such as Delaware, William & Mary, Towson, Richmond and James Madison is a testament to Cosgrove, his staff and the players at Maine, “many of whom are under-recruited or unrecruited.”
As for Cosgrove, he preferred to shine the spotlight on his seniors, many of whom contributed to a 2011 squad that went 9-4 and reached the Final Eight of the NCAA tournament. After last year’s 5-6 campaign, Maine was picked to finish eighth in the 11-team CAA this fall.
Next Sunday, a committee will determine the teams that don’t automatically qualify for the NCAA tournament. Next Saturday Maine will attempt to beat New Hampshire in Durham for the first time since 2001.
“That’s one thing the senior class has left to do, and that’s put the musket back up in the locker room,” said Wasilewski, referring to the flintlock rifle awarded to the winner of the annual rivalry.
“And a national championship,” added Johnson.
“Hey, D.J.,” Wasilewski said with a grin. “One thing at a time.”
Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at: [email protected]