ORONO — When Jacksonville State refused to kickoff to Earnest Edwards, the University of Maine junior wide receiver knew he’d have to beat the Gamecocks in other ways.

“Usually, teams kick to me at least once a game, but then try to kick it to somebody else,” Edwards said. “Jacksonville didn’t give me a chance at all. That was part of their game plan.”

Denied a chance to make an impact on special teams, Edwards made his presence felt on offense instead. He caught touchdown passes of 41 and 4 yards in the first quarter, then added a 1-yard touchdown run in the second quarter as Maine rolled to a 55-27 win over Jacksonville State in the second round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.

Edwards’ reputation as a kick returner is well-deserved. After seeing highlights of Edwards returning a pair of kickoffs for touchdowns in Maine’s regular-season finale win over Elon, Jacksonville State Coach John Grass knew he couldn’t allow the same thing to happen to his Gamecocks. When it came time to kick, Jacksonville left it high and short every time, not kicking deep to Edwards at the expense of giving up some field position.

“I think he’s a game changer. I think you have to keep the ball away from him. I thought we did a good job of that,” Grass said. “We weren’t going to kick the ball to him on kickoffs. We weren’t going to let him beat us in the open field. He’s got great speed, and (is) dangerous in the open field, for sure.”

Preventing Edwards from doing his thing in the flow of Maine’s offense proved to be tougher for the Gamecocks.

Edwards’ first touchdown came with 5:28 to play in the first quarter. He sprinted down the left sideline, getting a step on his defender in single coverage. Quarterback Chris Ferguson hit Edwards in stride for a 41-yard touchdown pass and a 14-0 lead.

“That was like bread and butter; (Ferguson) put it right where it needed to be, and I just created some separation,” Edwards said.

Edwards second touchdown, just a few minutes later, was a little more dramatic. On fourth-and-1 from the 4, Edwards lined up in the backfield, swung out to the left and caught a pass at about the 3. He appeared to slow down for a split second, then dashed to the front left corner of the end zone and dove for the pylon as Maine extended its lead to 21-0.

Edwards admitted that his flair for the dramatic overtook him on the play.

“I probably didn’t need to stretch for the pylon. I just put a little sauce into it, try to make it look better and get the fans into it,” Edwards said. “It’s part of my game, get everybody involved and not just the team.”

In preseason, Maine Coach Joe Harasymiak said the plan was to get Edwards more involved with the offense. That goal was achieved, as Edwards led the Black Bears with 43 catches for 673 yards and seven receiving touchdowns in the regular season.

“We had three or four seniors last year who left, and it was my time to step up,” Edwards said.

Edwards had three catches Saturday for a team-high 49 yards, as Ferguson spread the ball to seven receivers.

“I think we have one of the best wide receiver corps in the nation. I believe that. I think anybody you put against them, they’re going to make plays. They’re going to get open,” Ferguson said.

Edwards had 33 carries for 123 yards and a touchdown in the regular season. His touchdown in the second quarter Saturday will go down as a 1-yard run, but he really ran close to 20 yards to find the end zone. The play was designed to go to the left. When that was bottled up, Edwards stopped, cut right and sprinted to the end zone. The score gave Maine a 35-14 lead with 10:18 left in the first half.

“I see a bunch of people to my left. I only had one blocker, so I had to try and reverse it and make a play, and that’s what happened,” Edwards said.

As for watching every kickoff go for a fair catch at least 20 yards in front of him, Edwards shrugged it off. He knows it’s probably going to happen quite a bit.

“It’s frustrating,” Edwards said, “but if they’re going to give us extra yards, I’ll take it every day.”


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