UMaine’s Earnest Edwards accounted for 259 all-purpose yards in the Black Bears’ 34-30 comeback win over Rhode Island on Saturday. Peter Buehner photo

ORONO — When University of Maine quarterback Chris Ferguson suffered a season-ending foot injury on Oct. 12, Earnest Edwards knew someone had to fill his leadership void.

So Edwards, a 5-foot-10, 175-pound wide receiver from Rochester, New York, stepped up. Not only in his play, which has been electric throughout his career, but in his words. He’s been one of the lead figures as Maine has rebounded from a 2-5 start to win four consecutive games.

The Black Bears (6-5, 4-3 Colonial Athletic Association) must win once more – at rival New Hampshire (5-5, 4-3 CAA) on Saturday – to have a shot at being considered for one of the 14 at-large berths in the 24-team FCS playoff field.

“Ferg was our leader on the offensive side,” said Edwards, after a chilly practice Wednesday morning at Alfond Stadium. “When he got hurt, somebody else had to step up on the field. I feel like it was supposed to be me and that’s what I’ve been trying to do. I talk to the team more, I’m involved in everything more. I’ll do whatever I need to help this team win.”

And if that means talking more, Edwards is comfortable with that. He likes to talk.

“I’m just trying to be vocal more, more of a leader,” said Edwards, who is third in the nation with 175.9 all-purpose yards per game. “Not just showing with my play, my actions, but my words.”

His actions are pretty spectacular. In the four-game winning streak, he’s caught 20 passes for 437 yards and four touchdowns, rushed four times for 81 yards, completed two passes for two touchdowns and garnered 704 all-purpose yards, including an eye-opening 259 last week in a 34-30 comeback win over Rhode Island.

And just for good measure, playing defense for the first time since high school, Edwards made the tackle on the game’s final play by Rhode Island.

“I thought he willed our team to win,” said Coach Nick Charlton. “He had an impact in literally every facet of the game. I don’t know what I’ve got to do to get him on a (national) watch list. He works hard, cares for his teammates, blocks, whatever he needs to do.”

For the season, Edwards has caught 45 passes for 1,037 yards (averaging 23 yards per catch) and 10 touchdowns, rushed eight times for 102 yards, completed 5-of-6 passes for four touchdowns and returned two kickoffs for touchdowns.

He wants the ball in his hands.

“I mean, I feel my specialty is making people miss,” he said. “All I need is the ball in my hands and I can go to work from there. I’m good at reading defenses and setting up blocks.”

For Edwards and the other 14 Black Bear seniors, Saturday’s game against New Hampshire represents an opportunity to do even more. When the team was 2-5, the seniors knew they would have to change things fast if they wanted a chance at the playoffs.

“If we won our last five games, we would get that opportunity,” said Edwards. “And if we get that spot we already know what we can do. We made it to the semifinals last year. So all we need is that opportunity and we can take off from there.”

Former Cheverus star Joe Fitzpatrick leads UMaine with 510 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Running back Joe Fitzpatrick, the senior from North Yarmouth and Cheverus High, said he didn’t want the Black Bears to slip back. He thought back to his freshman year, when Maine finished 3-8.

“We were struggling then too,” said Fitzpatrick, who leads Maine with 510 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. “Myself and rest of seniors knew what it could be so we knew we had to turn this around.”

With freshman Joe Fagnano replacing Ferguson at quarterback, the offense has become explosive, averaging 38 points in his five starts. The defense rekindled the Black Hole, forcing turnovers and stopping the run.

And it has been the seniors – including wide receiver Jaquan Blair, defensive linemen Charles Mitchell, Kayon Whitaker and Alejandro Oregon and linebacker Taji Lowe – leading the way.

Charlton said their mentorship of the less-experienced players, such as linebackers Adrian Otero and Myles Taylor, has been instrumental in the winning streak.

“Ultimately our best players have to be at their best for us to win these games,” said Charlton. “One of the things  that (the seniors) have definitely impacted is the younger guys and the guys who hadn’t played a lot. Having the ability to step up and help them be confident and learn, that’s one of the biggest impacts they’ve had.”

Oregon, a defensive end from Brooklyn, New York, said the message was simple:

“The entire senior group didn’t want to end with such a bad taste, thinking back to, ‘Oh I wish I could have, would have done this and that.’ As a veteran you take each game and play to the best of your ability. That’s what we tell the younger players. You’ve got to play as if it’s your last game because you don’t want to go out sad.”

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