Maine’s Earnest Edwards stretches for the goal line as he scores a touchdown against New Hampshire earlier this season. (Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald)
ORONO — They call themselves “Top Flight.” And it’s a fitting name for the University of Maine’s wide receivers because they make the Black Bears’ offense fly.
Maine’s identity has been — and always will be — one of a tough, physical football team that thrives on a black-and-blue running game. But this year, its wide receivers — Earnest Edwards, Micah Wright, Jaquan Blair, Devin Young and Andre Miller — have taken the offense to new heights.
Of Maine’s 43 touchdowns this year, 20 were on passes to wide receivers. In last week’s 55-27 win over Jacksonville State in the second round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, they caught four of quarterback Chris Ferguson’s school playoff-record five touchdown passes.
“We’re expecting that from them now,” Ferguson said. “They’re playmakers. That’s what they do.”
They’ll need to be at their best again Friday night when Maine (9-3) plays at Weber State (10-2) in the FCS quarterfinals. The Wildcats have one of the nation’s top defenses, ranked 20th among FCS teams, and allow only 198.7 passing yards per game. The confident Black Bears aren’t fazed.
“As long as we play our game we’ll be fine,” said Blair, a 6-foot-2 junior from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. “We’ll go out there and have some fun.
“We can be the best receiving group in the country when we execute well. And right now we’ve got to be that for us to win. We know that’s no secret and we’re up for the challenge. We go out there and want to prove to everyone who we are.”
In the seven games since Ferguson returned from a shoulder injury — an injury also forced him to miss parts of the final two regular-season games — Maine’s passing game has come alive. The Black Bears went 6-1 and averaged 210.3 passing yards per game. In the two games he missed, Maine averaged just 172 passing yards per game and completed just 48 percent of its passes.
Against Jacksonville State last week, the wide receivers caught 10 of Ferguson’s 14 completions for 123 yards and the four TDs. That certainly caught the attention of Weber State coach Jay Hill.
“There’s a bunch of them that can hurt you,” he said. “There’s not one that stands out, but there are four or five who can have a game and hurt you and be the difference in the game. That’s the strength of that group as a whole.”
Edwards, a junior from Rochester, New York, may be the star. He leads Maine with 46 catches for 722 yards (15.7 average) and nine touchdowns. He also has rushed for 124 yards and two touchdowns, and returned two kickoffs for touchdowns in the regular-season finale.
But Ferguson spreads the ball around. As Blair said, “Fergy shows the love.” If someone works to get open, Ferguson is going to find him.
Wright, a senior from Newark, New York, has caught 42 passes for 480 yards (11.4 average) and six touchdowns. Tight end Drew Belcher is next with 38 catches, followed by Blair with 37 for 492 yards (13.3) and four touchdowns. Young, a redshirt freshman from Binghamton, New York, has caught 29 for 198 yards (6.8) and one touchdown. And Miller, the sophomore from neighboring Old Town, averaged 22.5 yards on his six catches.
Wright said it all starts with Ferguson: “He trusts us enough to throw us the ball and let us make plays. Once the ball is in the air, he thinks that we’re going to make the play and we know that when the ball is in the air that we’re going to make the play.”
Nick Charlton, Maine’s offensive coordinator, said the Black Bears are taking more downfield shots this year. He said that was lacking in 2017 and told Ferguson and the wide receivers that it was going to be a bigger point of emphasis this year. So they worked on it all offseason: passing inside the dome in the winter, outside in the spring and summer.
“We worked to create a chemistry,” Blair said. “We learned what Ferg’s tendencies are in throwing certain routes against certain coverages. He learned where we like to catch it.”
And now the offense is purring. The offensive line is playing well. Ramon Jefferson and Joe Fitzpatrick are piling up rushing yardage — the team rushed for 268 yards last week — and the receivers are confident no one can cover them one-on-one.
“We feel there’s not a complete secondary in the country that can match up with all five of us,” Wright said. “We love it. We love taking the field knowing that.”