On third down from the opposing 2-yard line last Saturday, senior wide receiver Earnest Edwards ran with the football to his right and suddenly raised both arms as if to signal a touchdown.

Then Edwards stopped and threw a touchdown pass to Jaquan Blair in the middle of the end zone and the University of Maine was on its way to a 31-17 road win over Elon.

On the sideline, senior defensive tackle Charles Mitchell laughed. “Watching that play on the Jumbotron, Ernie got me cracking up,” said Mitchell.

Football is fun again for the Black Bears, who take a three-game winning streak into Saturday’s final home game of the season, a noon encounter with Rhode Island at Alfond Stadium. “Everything just feels better when you win,” said Mitchell.

And Maine has to keep winning. The Black Bears are 5-5, 3-3 in the Colonial Athletic Association. Even with their three-game winning, their hopes of qualifying for the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs hang by a thread: one more loss and they’re gone.

Maine’s players have known this for the last month, since a 24-17 home loss to Richmond dropped them to 2-5, 0-3 in the CAA. And they have responded with their best football of the season.

“It’s pretty wild,” said Coach Nick Charlton. “When we started this thing we talked about playing each week with a championship mentality: ‘We need to go 1-0 each week. And if we do, we’re going to make it. We can’t worry about anything else.’ That’s where our focus is, going 1-0 this week.”

Maine has Rhode Island (2-8, 0-6) this week, then is at New Hampshire, which plays at Albany this weekend with the loser probably being knocked out of playoff contention, next week.

“We know we only have two more games guaranteed,” said Edwards, who has caught nine touchdown passes this year, thrown for four and returned two kickoffs for touchdowns. “We want more. We want to keep this thing rolling.”

Mitchell said the seniors have understood the stakes for a while. “I feel the sense of urgency has picked up these past couple of weeks,” he said. “It’s crunch time. And we don’t want to go home for Thanksgiving. The senior class, it’s our last ride, We’ve got to step up.”

And they have, especially on the defensive side.

During the three-game winning streak, the Black Bears have 12 sacks, six fumble recoveries and one interception. In the previous seven games, Maine had 12 sacks, one fumble recovery and one interception. Senior defensive end Kayon Whitaker has led the way with 4.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for a loss.

“At this point, we’re in a different place than we were earlier in the year,” said Charlton. “It’s been a lot of fun to watch. It’s been really great creating the turnovers and there’s been a lot of energy coming that way.”

Energy and momentum. And football, Charlton said, ‘is all about momentum.”

Take the win over Elon. After Maine scored on its opening drive, redshirt freshman Jonathan Smith-Cobb forced a fumble on the kickoff return that was recovered by Maine’s Ori Jean-Charles at Elon’s 21. Four Joe Fitzpatrick rushes later, Maine led 14-0.

After the defense forced a three-and-out punt, Joe Fagnano hit Edwards for an 88-yard touchdown pass on first down. It was 21-0. The defense forced another three-and-out punt and Blair returned the punt 39 yards to Elon’s 20. Six plays later, Edwards threw his touchdown pass to Blair to make it 28-0.

“We know once the defense makes a big play, the offense has to get rolling,” said Edwards. “We want to execute, we want to make the big play,  we want to score touchdowns.”

The offense has been sparked by Fagnano, the freshman who took over at quarterback when Chris Ferguson suffered a season-ending foot injury against Richmond. In his four starts, Fagnano has completed 72 of 106 passes for 1,271 yards, 13 touchdowns and two interceptions.

“You never know with true freshmen,” said Charlton. “When we saw him in camp, he was very poised back there. He kept getting better every day … I couldn’t have predicted the production, but he really rises to every challenge.”

And the Black Bears know they have two more challenges to meet if they want to extend their season.

“We know we kind of messed up in the first half of the season,” said Edwards. “We want to turn it around … All we need is a chance. That’s all we want.”

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