As a hushed group of Western Kentucky supporters shuffled down Avenue of Champions at 10:15 Saturday night, Maine players whooped and hollered from just inside the stadium gates.

The FCS Black Bears had just walked into Houchens-Smith Stadium and stunned the FBS host Hilltoppers 31-28. And, as one Maine player reminded the fans, they took home a $300,000 payday in the process.

“Thanks for the money, baby!” a Black Bear yelled at the exiting masses.

Maine (2-0) fell behind WKU (0-2) 21-0 barely five minutes into the teams’ matchup Saturday night. Then the Black Bears dominated from that point forward, scoring 31 unanswered points and leading by 10 in the fourth quarter.

The Toppers scored a late TD to cut the margin to 31-28, then had a chance to tie the game on a Ryan Nuss field goal in the final minute. But Maine broke through and blocked the 48-yard attempt, sealing the three-point win.

“Honestly, a very tough loss for us, a very tough pill to swallow,” coach Mike Sanford said. “We all played a role in that loss.”

It all set up to be a feel-good day for WKU.

The school honored some of its greatest players as part of All-Century Team celebrations. The group included players from the Jimmy Feix era, the 2002 I-AA national championship team and more recent FBS squads.

Grammy Award-winning rock band Cage the Elephant played a raucous pregame show for students and tailgaters on the South Lawn.

And then the Hilltopper football team broke out of the gates for 21 straight points early against Maine. WKU scored on two Drew Eckels scoring strikes to Lucky Jackson and on a Devon Key interception return.

Then the tide changed. The Tops failed to score on each of their next 12 drives, and Maine hit some big plays of its own.

A 21-0 lead completely evaporated and WKU took its third loss as an FBS member against an FCS foe. It also lost at home in 2009 against Central Arkansas and in ’11 against Indiana State.

“I think that we kind of played conservative,” cornerback DeAndre Farris said. “We got too relaxed. That’s something going into the (rest of the season), we’ve got to continue to put the pedal to the metal.”

Western Kentucky didn’t waste any time taking command of the game. On the team’s first offensive play, the quarterback Eckels fired a 66-yard touchdown strike to Jackson on a wheel route down the right sideline.

It was WKU’s first touchdown of the year and Eckels’ third TD toss of his career – his first since 2016.

Then the Hilltopper defense quickly made it 14-0. The safety Key played center field on a Maine third-and-7, easily picking off a Chris Ferguson pass and returning it 45 yards for a touchdown.

WKU got the ball back after a Black Bears three-and-out. Eckels and Jackson then made their second touchdown connection of the game to put the Toppers up 21-0 with 9:57 left in the first quarter.

This time, Eckels rolled right to escape pressure and found the wideout Jackson wide open over the middle of the field.

Maine trimmed the margin to 21-7 with 10:20 left in the second quarter. Ferguson got the ball to running back Ramon Jefferson, who broke a Key tackle and ran 51 yards down the right sideline before reaching for the team’s first TD.

The Hilltopper offense stalled over the rest of the first half and the Black Bears’ own attack struck again before the break.

Maine cut the deficit to 21-14 with a 32-yard Ferguson touchdown toss to Micah Wright with 1:32 left.

The Black Bears tied the game on a defensive touchdown with 12:41 to play in the third quarter. Sterling Sheffield strip-sacked Eckels, and Deshawn Stevens picked up the loose ball and returned it 50 yards for a touchdown.

WKU set up Maine’s go-ahead TD with a failed fourth-down conversion. Hilltopper running back Marquez Trigg was stuffed at his own 15-yard line on a fourth-and-1, turning the ball back over to Maine.

“I felt like we needed some juice, needed some offense,” Sanford said. “I wanted to give our guys an opportunity to go out and earn that fourth-down conversion.

“At the end of the day, that was a call that was detrimental to the overall course of the game. There’s no doubt about that. As I told the team after the game, that’s one where I didn’t put them in the best position possible.”

Ferguson, on the very next play, completed a 15-yard touchdown strike to Wright. That TD gave the Black Bears their first lead, 28-21, with 5:16 left in the third.

Maine pushed its lead to two scores at 31-21 with 7:11 in the fourth quarter on a 37-yard Kenny Doak field goal.

WKU quickly made it a one-score game again when Eckels found Garland LaFrance on a 75-yard TD pass with 7:00 left.

The Hilltopper defense got the ball back for its offense, which moved from its own 3-yard line to the Black Bears’ 31. That set up Ryan Nuss’ attempt at a game-tying field goal, but Maine blocked it.

UP NEXT

WKU will head up Interstate 65 next weekend to battle in-state foe Louisville for the first time since 1998. It’s the first meeting of a three-game series between the schools.

Coach Bobby Petrino’s Cardinals faced Indiana State on Saturday in a game that ended after the Daily News’ press time.

Petrino coached WKU to an 8-4 record during the 2013 season.

NOTES

Sanford is 6-9 in his second year as WKU’s coach. Eckels is 0-2 as the team’s starting QB. … Maine leads its series against the Hilltoppers 1-0. It was the Black Bears’ third win over an FBS team. … WKU is now 17-4 the last 21 years in home openers. … Announced attendance at Houchens-Smith Stadium was 15,781.{&end}

– Follow Daily News sports reporter Brad Stephens on Twitter @BradBGDN or visit bgdailynews.com.

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Bowling Green Daily News sports reporter primarily covering Western Kentucky football and men's basketball.

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