By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
Editor's Note: This entry in the CSJ Classic series is a bittersweet one that describes a Maine-Monmouth game that the writer's attended on a scouting trip as executive director for The Sports Network to watch Black Bear defensive end Jovan Belcher play on Sept. 6, 2008. Belcher went on to finish second to Eastern Washington's Greg Peach that year as a senior in the Buck Buchanan Award balloting. Belcher, who was currently a member of the Kansas City Chiefs, died tragically by his own hand on Saturday morning in a murder-suicide.
WEST LONG BRANCH, N.J. — It took tight end Derek Buttles exactly one game to work his way into the entertaining and sometimes colorful history of Maine football.
Buttles went from goat to hero in the midst of a few minutes of the second half Saturday afternoon at Monmouth.
After dropping a sure touchdown pass in the end zone in the third quarter, Buttles' 23-yard deflected catch with 2:49 remaining lifted the Black Bears to a 21-17 victory over the Hawks, in the rain and wind of tropical storm Hanna.
"It was good to be in the right place at the right time," said Buttles, who had two catches for 55 yards on Maine's final 12-play, 80-yard drive.
Facing a fourth-and-21 from the Monmouth 23, Maine kept place kicker Brian Harvey on the sideline instead of attempting what would have been a 40-yard field goal into the squall.
Even if the weather had been sunny and calm, Maine might have passed on a field goal, considering Harvey had missed from 20 and 33 yards earlier in the game.
"We basically ended up with a play sending four or five guys down to the end zone," Maine quarterback Adam Farkas explained. "I scrambled out of the pocket and it was a decision of who I was going to throw to."
Farkas nearly crossed the line of scrimmage before heaving the ball into the end zone for Jared Turcotte. Monmouth free safety Joes Gumbs broke in front of Turcotte to intercept the pass, but the rain-slicked ball ricocheted off Gumbs' palms and into the waiting arms of Buttles.
"The ball just bounced off my hands and into the hands of the receiver," said Gumbs, who collapsed on the field in despair after the touchdown play.
With under three minutes to play, Monmouth battled to move the ball to their own 43, where a fourth and 10 screen pass from Brett Burke to David Sinisi ended with Sinisi being tackled just short of the first-down sticks.
Sinisi was spectacular as he kept the Hawks in the game, rushing 29 times for 182 yards and touchdowns of 33 yards and one yard. He also caught two passes for 30 yards.
Sinisi's second TD ended a gutsy, 12-play, 75-yard drive that followed Buttles' dropped pass in the end zone to give Monmouth a 17-14 lead with 9:23 remaining.
Maine looked like it was capable of blowing out the Hawks on its first possession.
The Black Bears used Lamir Whetstone's 52-yard kickoff return and six runs by Jhamal Fluellen (26 carries, 102 yards) to move into scoring position, but Harvey was wide right with his field goal attempt.
"It was like we couldn't play, because we missed a field goal attempt," said Maine coach Jack Cosgrove. "That took a lot of wind out of our sails."
Monmouth scored with just over a minute left in the first and second quarters on Fred Weingart's 27-yard field goal and Sinisi's 33-yard scamper around the end to lead 10-0.
But Maine pulled itself off the mat at the end of the first half with a six- play, 57-yard drive to make it 10-7 at the break. Farkas (17-of-27 for 207 yards and three TDs passing) fired a 16-yard strike to Landis Williams on a flag route to get the Black Bears on the scoreboard.
"We gave Maine some life with that drive at the end of the first half," Monmouth coach Kevin Callahan said.
Farkas burned the Monmouth secondary again in the third period with a 27-yard TD connection to Jeremy Kelley that gave Maine a 14-10 at the 5:37 mark.
The Maine defense did its part, limiting Burke to 10-of-26 passing for only 95 yards.
Defensive end Jovan Belcher, Maine's Buck Buchanan Award candidate, piled up 10 tackles, with one sack, one pass breakup and two and a half tackles for loss.
Belcher, a one-time linebacker, made life difficult for the Monmouth offense throughout the day, as he shifted his position around from side to side and even in the middle of the Black Bear defense on almost every play to confuse the Hawk offensive line.
"I am just happy to win and to help my teammates," said a soaked-to-the-bone and mud-encrusted Belcher, after the game. "All I want to do is win."
Not only did Monmouth struggle with Belcher, Maine's defensive captain.
The extra attention that Monmouth was forced to give to him indeed freed his teammates to make numerous plays.
"Jovan is one of those players who makes everyone else around him better," said Cosgrove. "He is a great team leader."
But the game seemed to turn when Buttles dropped that surefire touchdown pass in the end zone from the Monmouth 25 on fourth and seven, with the Black Bears looking to throw a knockout punch.
"I looked around and wondered why he was even in the game at that point," said Cosgrove.
"I came off to the sideline pretty upset and the guys just told me to keep my head up," said Buttles.
But it didn't take Buttles long to redeem himself. After the Hawks had regained the lead, Farkas found Buttles free for a 32-yard pass play that moved Maine to the 12-yard line.
Three more plays ended in the loss of 11 yards for the Black Bears and that set up Buttles' chance at glory, his catch lifting Maine to a much-needed victory.
"When we had our backs against the wall, we performed," said Cosgrove. "We survived. We did enough to win."