Hilltoppers blow 21-point lead, fall to Maine

WKU’s Drell Greene (9) tackles Maine’s Jordan Swann (13) during WKU’s game against Maine at Houchens Industries – L.T. Smith Stadium in Bowling Green on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018. 

Matt Stahl

WKU came in to its game against Maine looking to get a needed win over an FCS opponent.

The Hilltoppers instead suffered a heartbreaking loss, letting Maine come back from a 21-point deficit to defeat WKU 31-28.

After the game, WKU head coach Mike Sanford expressed his disappointment.

“Honestly, very tough loss for us,” Sanford said. “Very tough pill to swallow. I talked to the team afterwords, obviously we all played a role in that loss.”

The Hilltoppers began the game on the right foot. After winning the coin toss and electing to receive, WKU started at its own 34 and promptly opened the scoring with redshirt senior quarterback Drew Eckels tossing a 66-yard touchdown to junior wide receiver Lucky Jackson.

After the Black Bears took possession, their offense struggled just as much their defense. Senior quarterback Chris Ferguson threw an interception on the second play of the drive to sophomore safety Devon Key, who scampered in to the end zone to give the Hilltoppers a 14-0 lead.

After a Maine three-and-out, which was partially caused by a sack on second down from sophomore defensive tackle Jeremy Darvin, the Hilltoppers marched down the field again and Eckels once again found Jackson for a 32-yard touchdown.

The tide turned from that point on. 

In the second quarter, WKU gave up a long score to Maine freshman receiver Ramon Jefferson on a play in which Key missed a tackle. The call on the field was that Jefferson fumbled the ball through the back of the end zone for a touchback, but review showed that the ball did not come loose until after it broke the plane for a touchdown. Maine was back within two possessions. 

The Hilltopper offense was stagnant in the second quarter, recording four empty possessions, including three unsuccessful third-down attempts and one drive where they failed to convert on a fourth-and-5.

The Black Bears were able to capitalize after the fourth down stop, drawing within one possession on a 32-yard touchdown pass from Ferguson to senior receiver Micah Wright. The teams went in to the locker room with the Hilltoppers leading 21-14.

The WKU defense got the stop on Maine’s first drive of the second half, snuffing out a fourth down attempt to get the ball inside Maine territory. But the ensuing drive ended in disaster for the Hilltoppers as Eckels fumbled and Maine sophomore linebacker Deshawn Stevens who took it into the end zone to tie the game at 21.

Later in the third, Maine struck again, as WKU ran redshirt junior running back Marquez Trigg up the middle on fourth down to no avail, and Maine took the lead with a quick touchdown from Ferguson to Wright on the very next play. 

“Sanford believed in us to get that yard,” Trigg said. “It’s a yard. We can’t make excuses, we need to get that.”

Offense continued to be a struggle late in the game, with the Hilltoppers eventually getting up to 13 straight possessions without any points. On the other side, Maine made key plays when needed and increased the lead to 10 in the fourth with a 37-yard field goal from Kenny Doak.

Finally, with seven minutes remaining, WKU was able to get another touchdown, as Eckels found freshman running back Garland LaFrance for a 75-yard touchdown.

The defense made a key stop with less than three-and-a-half minutes remaining, but a good punt by Maine pinned the Hilltoppers to their own 3-yard line. Eckels and company managed to put a drive together, but Ryan Nuss’ 48-yard field goal attempt to tie the game was blocked and Maine took the victory.

Eckels left the game on the play before after being shaken up on a quarterback scramble Over the course of the game, Eckels was sacked six times. Sanford said postgame that Eckels came in to the game banged up and is being evaluated for an upper body injury.

The Hilltoppers fall to 0-2 on the year, and have lost seven of their last eight games dating back to last year. Senior defensive back DeAndre Farris said the team leaders need to keep the team optimistic. 

“Just continue to express that everything’s going to be alright,” Farris said. “Because it is. It’s only Week 2. We got ten more games left and that’s a lot of games that we can win.”

WKU will be back in action Saturday at Louisville (1-1). 

Reporter Matt Stahl can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @mattstahl97.