SOUTH KINGSTOWN — It looked like the University of Rhode Island football team’s dream season suddenly had a signature, game-winning moment.
Instead, it now includes a last-second heartbreaker.
In the first Top 25 battle at Meade Stadium since 2001, the No. 16 Rams took a one-point lead with 51 seconds left on a touchdown pass from Vito Priore to Aaron Parker. But No. 20 Maine used those 51 seconds to drive into URI territory and won the game 38-36 on Kenny Doak’s 39-yard field goal as time expired.
“It was a very difficult loss. One which had a wealth of things happen, which I quite honestly haven’t seen before. Two good football teams battled their tails off. We were able to get it back and put ourselves in position,” URI head coach Jim Fleming said. “We fought in a crazy, crazy world and end up losing the game. It kind of breaks your heart. It’ll be a test of character to come back up, come back to work tomorrow and get ready for Stony Brook.”
The loss was URI’s first in Colonial Athletic Association play and first to an FCS opponent. The other defeat was also a one-score game against FBS Connecticut. Maine improved to 3-0 in CAA play and is tied with Towson for first place, a spot the Rams hoped to be in after their 2-0 start and continued success outside of conference play.
“It makes it that much tougher – that’s all it has really done,” Fleming said. “To achieve our ultimate goal of a conference championship, we picked up our first loss in conference. That means that right now we’ve got to be better each and every week and try to pick up one that might have gotten away down the road. Who knows how this season ends up? We know what we’re achieving right now is trying to go ahead and win the next football game. Disappointed that we didn’t get this one.”
The sell-out crowd of 7,301 – the largest at Meade Stadium since 1991 – witnessed twists, turns and a parade of yellow flags, plus three scores in the final 2:28 that all looked like game-winners.
The drama began when Maine finished off a run of 21 consecutive points with a touchdown run by quarterback Chris Ferguson with 2:28 remaining that put the Black Bears ahead 35-30. They had erased a 30-14 deficit to get there.
URI took over at its own 25-yard line and began an improbable march that looked dead in the water on several occasions. On fourth-and-seven, Marven Beauvais made a leaping catch for 21 yards and a first down. Later, on fourth-and-10, a pass fell incomplete, but the Black Bears were whistled for a roughing the passer penalty that resurrected URI’s chances. A pass interference flag, a 16-yard pass to Parker and another roughing the passer call put the Rams on the 2-yard line. Priore threw a fade pass to Parker in the left corner of the end zone, where the junior hauled in his second touchdown of the game.
“We just ran a basic concept that we usually run,” Parker said. “We ran the fade and my quarterback trusted me to go get it.”
URI went for the two-point conversion – which would have bumped the lead to three – but Priore’s pass for Parker fell incomplete.
Two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties on the Black Bears had URI kicking off from the Maine 35-yard line. Fleming said he considered a squib kick or “something crazy” but ultimately decided to have C.J. Carrick kick the ball through the end zone for a touchback, which put Maine at the 25-yard line with 51 seconds to go and two timeouts in its pocket.
The Black Bears found immediate success with a 15-yard pass and a 16-yarder to Jaquan Blair that moved the ball across midfield. Passes to Wright and Jo Fitzpatrick, plus two five-yard penalties for illegal substitution on the Rams put the ball at the URI 21 in the final seconds.
“The coaches had us ready if the defense didn’t stop them,” said Ferguson, the Maine quarterback. “We believe in those guys, but things happen and, ultimately, we got a chance to go on the field. We practice that every week. We did that all during camp. It’s a testament to all of the work we put in and the trust I have in these guys. We took care of business.”
A week removed from hitting the game-winning field goal against Villanova, Doak drilled the 39-yard try through the middle of the uprights as the final seconds ticked away.
“Just wanted to win it for the guys,” Doak said. “Obviously, this week, stuff wasn’t going our way, but it’s not over till the whistle blows. I knew I was going to get an opportunity.”
Before the wild finish, the game had a crazy start. On URI’s opening possession, a pass by Priore to Matt Pires was dropped, and Pires didn’t pick up the ball. No whistle blew as the throw was ruled a lateral, and Maine’s Jeff DeVaughn scooped the ball and returned it for a touchdown. Fleming wasn’t pleased with the call in the postgame press conference, though replay later showed that it was indeed a backwards pass.
Despite spotting Maine the early lead, the Rams dominated the rest of the first half to take a 16-7 lead. Maine made it 16-14 late in the second quarter. Zoe Bryant scored a pair of touchdowns to give URI the 30-14 lead, before Maine’s rally began.
“They’re a really good team,” Maine coach Joe Harasymiak said. “That skill at receiver is really, really good. We recruited a lot of them. Coach Fleming has done a great job. I have a lot of respect for them. I think this school is probably the most similar to ours out of any of the schools in the CAA. We recruit the same kids, we work for everything and I know they do too. They’re doing a great job. I want to give a lot of credit to them. That’s a really good football team. It sucks to be on the other side, but at the same time, I’m proud of my guys.”
URI remained in the Top 25 after the loss, dropping to No. 22 in the STATS FCS Poll and No. 23 in the AFCA Coaches Poll. Another matchup with a ranked team is set for Saturday when the Rams visit No. 17 Stony Brook.
“What are we going to do? We’re going to go play the next game,” Fleming said. “The past don’t come back in. These guys have grown from one point to another. And we have grown as a football program, as evidenced by what everybody saw out there today – sold-out crowd, walking in for a conference championship game, which each and every one of these will be. We’re going to get up and we’ll go fight like we have done in the past. That has been our habit. It’s hard to come back off a situation when you get beat by a field goal. Everybody reminisces on Towson two years ago and, hell yeah, I recognize the same thing. But these guys have grown. We’ll get on back up, we’ll load up, we’ll get on the ferry and we’ll play Stony Brook next Saturday after a good week of practice.”