Fans at Alfond Stadium await the start of Maine’s football season opener Thursday night against Delaware. Mike Lowe photo

ORONO — The University of Maine’s football team learned a painful fact Thursday night: You can’t make mistakes if you want to beat a great team.

And Thursday night, the Black Bears made too many mistakes in a 34-24 season-opening loss to fifth-ranked Delaware before a crowd of 5,548 fans at Alfond Stadium – Maine’s first home crowd since 2019.

The Black Bears led 24-17 at halftime, but penalties, interceptions, fumbles and misplays allowed Delaware to pull this one out. Maine committed nine penalties for 73 yards (compared to just one penalty for eight yards for the Blue Hens), quarterback Joe Fagnano threw two interceptions, and the Black Bears lost a momentum-changing fumble.

“Unfortunately we didn’t execute in the biggest moments,” said Maine Coach Nick Charlton. “That was the message afterwards – if we want to be a championship-level team, we have to execute in the biggest moments. And we’re got to play better and clean it up and I’ve got to coach better.”

Maine did all its scoring in a span of 8:29 in the second quarter, obliterating a 17-0 deficit and shocking the Blue Hens. Fagnano threw two touchdowns passes – 28 yards to Michael Monios and 59 yards to Zavier Scott – and Montigo Moss scored on a blocked punt by Monios. Jonny Messina’s 22-yard field goal at the end of the second quarter sent the Black Bears into the locker room leading 24-17 against a team that had beaten them 37-0 in the opening game of the 2021 spring season.

Delaware Coach Danny Rocco said afterward that the Blue Hens’ 17-0 lead actually hurt them. “We lost focus,” he said. “If that’s my fault, that’s my fault. But we lost focus.”

And the Black Bears took advantage to steal the lead. But they couldn’t hold the momentum.

And, said Charlton, “Football is a game of momentum.”

Delaware held Maine to 105 yards in the second half, never letting Fagnano get into the rhythm he enjoyed in the second quarter. The Blue Hens tied the game with an explosive play, then dominated the Black Bears with an effective running game.

The tying touchdown was a 66-yard pass from Nolan Henderson to Thyrick Pitts in which Pitts outfought a Maine defender for the ball at midfield, then bounced off two would-be tacklers to run in for the score.

“We did a great job stealing the momentum and continuing to ride the wave (in the second quarter),” said Maine linebacker Ray Miller, who led the team with 12 tackles. “Once they made a big play to take the momentum back, we struggled to regain it. … We’ve got to respond when adversity hits and we didn’t do a great job of that in the second half.”

Still, Maine was in the game until the end of the third, trailing just 27-24 and driving deep into Delaware territory when, said Rocco, “the single-biggest play of the game” occurred.

Maine had first-and-10 at the Delaware 25 on the final play of the third quarter when Fagnano lofted a high pass to Devin Young down the left sideline. Young adjusted on the ball, caught it inside the 5 and fought to get in for the score. As he did, Delaware cornerback Nijuel Hill punched the ball out and it rolled into the end zone, then out of bounds.

Instead of a touchdown, or setting up a score, the play was ruled a touchback and Delaware had the ball.

“I think that play really forced the outcome of the game,” said Rocco. “If they weren’t going to score there, they’d have a hard time finding a way to win tonight.”

“That’s a big play,” said Fagnano, who completed 24 of 41 passes for 304 yards and two touchdowns. “But I trust Devin Young, I know he’s going to make a play, and unfortunately that didn’t go our way.”

Maine had three possession in the fourth quarter but gained just 25 yards.

On the first drive, Fagnano’s third-down pass (on a third-and-2 from the Maine 44) was broken up by linebacker Anthony Toro. The Blue Hens then drove 77 yards in eight plays – aided by an unsportsmanlike penalty against the Maine sideline – to get a 2-yard touchdown run by Khory Spuill with 8:01 left that made it 34-24.

Maine’s next possession ended when Fagnano’s pass from the Delaware 49 went off his receiver’s hands and was intercepted by Colby Reeder.

The next possession ended with back-to-back sacks that lost 17 yards.

“Unfortunately we’re going to watch this tape and there’s going to be a lot of plays we could have had back,” said Charlton. “Maybe you get away with that against another team, but not a team like that, that’s well coached and has great players.

“That’s the hard part. You see what we have here and what we’ve worked hard to build here. And right in the moment, we didn’t execute.”

 

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