ORONO — They may not have had the last-second dramatics of Auburn, with its Immaculate Deflection to beat Georgia topped by a Walk-off Field Goal Return to upset Alabama, but the University of Maine Black Bears enjoyed their share of game-changing plays in this feel-good football season.
The fifth-seeded Black Bears (10-2) take on rival New Hampshire (8-4) Saturday afternoon in a second-round NCAA playoff game, the first ever held at Alfond Stadium.
Advance ticket sales surpassed 5,500 Thursday afternoon, already more than the attendance figures for both November home games.
The road to a December playoff game in Orono was not always smooth. Here are the four plays that turned Maine’s season from mediocre to magical.
The situation: In a matchup of two ranked teams outside of Philadelphia in late October, No. 11 Maine trailed No. 18 Villanova 7-0 in the first quarter and saw its first possession stall after three plays gained only five yards.
The danger: Climbing out of a 14-0 hole to a potent Villanova offense led by elusive quarterback John Robertson would have been a challenge. The Black Bears never trailed by double digits in any of their victories.
The play: Junior safety Khari Al-Mateen, aligned about five yards behind the center in punt protection formation, barked out a code word calling for a fake. Long snapper John Ebeling turned his head to stare in disbelief at Al-Mateen.
“I was like, ‘Turn around!’ You’re going to give it away,” said Al-Mateen, who had been reminded by Coach Jack Cosgrove just before leaving the sideline that if Villanova came out in an unbalanced defensive line – five rushers on one side of Ebeling and two on the other – to call for the fake because Maine would be vulnerable to a blocked punt.
The upshot: Ebeling’s snap went not to punter Jeffrey Ondish, but to Al-Mateen, who cut outside sealing blocks by Troy Eastman and Trevor Bates and ran up the middle of the field for 41 yards before being tackled by Villanova’s punt returner. The offense again sputtered, but sophomore Sean Decloux kicked a 39-yard field goal to make it 7-3 and Maine went on to a 37-35 victory.
“They started really fast,” Al-Mateen said of the Wildcats, the preseason favorites to win the Colonial Athletic Association championship but wound up 6-5 overall and 5-3 in the league, “so that fake punt was a great way to level the playing field and swing the momentum back our way.”
The situation: In early November in Orono, the Black Bears saw a 13-0 halftime lead evaporate into a 14-13 deficit against Stony Brook, which had forced a three-and-out on three straight Maine drives after halftime. A holding penalty on a punt return pushed the Black Bears back to their own 9 with a little more than seven minutes remaining. Quarterback Marcus Wasilewski completed passes of 14 yards to Damarr Aultman and 18 to Justin Perillo before the Black Bears faced a crucial third-and-11 from their own 42.
The danger: A resurgent Stony Brook running game may have been able to eat up the clock, should Maine fail to score.
The play: Ebeling, a quarterback turned slot receiver who was an outstanding high school basketball player and high jumper in New Jersey, leaped above a defensive back to haul in a Wasilewski pass good for 34 yards to keep the drive alive.
The upshot: Wasilewski connected with Ebeling on the very next play, faking a screen before throwing a 24-yard touchdown pass to give Maine a 19-14 lead that turned out to be the final score.
The situation: Playing its fourth road game in the first five weeks of the season, unranked Maine found itself in a back-and-forth contest at No. 20 Richmond.
The Black Bears lost both their starting safeties to injury but led 28-21 as Richmond quarterback Michael Strauss, who wound up leading the CAA in passing, drove the Spiders 64 yards in the final five minutes, converting four times on third down when Maine called time with 27 seconds left and the ball at its own 5.
The danger: A Richmond touchdown would bring the Spiders to within a point and give them the choice of a PAT kick to force overtime or an attempted two-point conversion to win in regulation.
The play: Eastman, a linebacker, and defensive end Michael Cole put a strong rush on Strauss, who threw off his back foot to a wide receiver dragging across the middle. Backup safety Lamar Fitzgerald, a senior who transfered in before the 2012 season after two years at Lackawanna College, jumped the route and intercepted the pass in the end zone.
The upshot: The Black Bears ran out the clock to win their conference opener, moved to No. 23 in the national rankings and Richmond dropped out of the Top 25.
“That was probably one of the greatest feelings I’ve ever had playing the game,” said Fitzgerald, who wound up in Orono in part because he played point guard on Eastman’s AAU basketball team in New Jersey.
The situation: In the second game of a season that for the first time included two bowl-eligible opponents, Maine trailed the University of Massachusetts 7-3 at Gillette Stadium early in the second quarter, having already turned the ball over on a fumble and an end-zone interception.
The danger: A sputtering Maine offense would fail to gain traction against a bigger, deeper and more athletic opponent with 22 more scholarships and a budget large enough to pay the Black Bears $160,000 for making the trip to Foxborough.
The play: After a 56-yard Ondish punt was fair caught inside the 10, Maine forced a UMass punt that carried only 20 yards.
Senior tailback Rickey Stevens took a handoff on the next play, burst through middle, broke a tackle and outraced the UMass secondary for a 35-yard touchdown run to give Maine a lead it never relinquished.
The upshot: Stevens gave Maine an offensive spark touched off an impressive running attack that included an eight-minute clinching drive in the fourth quarter to preserve a 24-14 victory, only the second in school history over a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent.
“We weren’t playing (well) until he bolted there,” said Cosgrove.
Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at: