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Defense looking for more takeaways

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If Albany’s coach Bob Ford knew how many times his team would have turned the ball over prior to the Massachusetts football team’s 44-7 route on Saturday, he may not have bothered bringing his team to Amherst.

“I talk to [my team] all the time about the statistics,” Ford said after the loss. “If you turn the ball over one more time than your opponent, they win 67 percent of the time, two more times, they win 74 percent, and three more times, they win 91 percent.”

According to Ford’s calculations, The Minutemen (1-1) had a better chance of winning with their plus-four turnover ratio on the night – they had three interceptions and two fumble recoveries compared to the Great Danes’ one interception.

Now, the game isn’t played with percentages, but by those numbers the UMass defense feels pretty good about heading into the second game of a three-game home stand against Rhode Island this Saturday, the Minutemen’s first Colonial Athletic Association game of the year.

Through two games, UMass has been a turnover machine. With two fumble recoveries and an interception in Week 1 against Football Bowl Subdivision Kansas State, the Minutemen have now forced eight turnovers compared to the three they have had previously – all interceptions.

 “It’s a big morale builder and it is their mission,” UMass coach Kevin Morris said. “Their mission is to get the ball with relentless pursuit of the ball and we’ve been doing a great job of that the last two weeks.”

Against Albany, UMass’ defense set the tone on the Great Danes first play from scrimmage, when defensive tackle Brandon Collier got to Vinny Esposito, forcing a fumble and later recovering it. Collier would go on to warn the rest of the CAA after the game that the UMass defense was back.            With the way they have played so far, it is hard to argue.

One player that has helped send that message is sophomore Tyler Holmes. Last season, as a true freshman, Holmes played in six games recording 23 tackles in his only start, the last game of the season. In that game, a 28-14 win against Hofstra, Holmes grabbed his first career interception. Now, with two more starts to his resume in 2009, Holmes has nearly as many tackles as in 2008 with 20 – best on the team and fourth best per game in the CAA. Holmes now has two more interceptions including  interceptions in each of his last three games, dating back to last season.

“We just want to keep playing hard,” Holmes said. “The CAA is tough so we just have to keep turning it up, and it all starts this week with Rhode Island.”

With four senior defensive linemen, all with plenty of playing experience at UMass, the Minutemen have played more downs with four linemen. With the experienced group of Collier, Kyle Harrington, Michael Hanson and Anthony Monette up front, it has allowed the line to do more, and the rest of the defense to only have to worry about their jobs.

 “I feel like we’re the leaders of the defense, [and] just us four up front have a lot of playing experience,” Collier said. “We’re just trying to lead by example and on the field, we’re just trying to be physical and get to the passer.”

That physicality has paid off in the form of turnovers and has given the Minutemen plenty of lift with a near upset of Kansas State. On offense, the turnovers have turned into points on five of the eight takeaways. Three of those times, UMass converted the turnover into a touchdown, as the other two went for field goals.

Against Rhode Island (1-0), turnovers could play a large role. The Rams last played on Sept. 5 and came away with a 41-28 over Fordham. In the win, URI protected the ball, not giving it away once while grabbing four fumble recoveries and an interception.

For Morris, he’s not sure if Collier’s words are ringing in the ears of the Rams, or if the defense has sent a message to the rest of the conference, but he does hope his team makes a strong statement this weekend.

“Well I think every game you go out onto the field you send a message, good, bad or indifferent, you’re out making some type of statement as to who you are as a football team,” Morris said. “So if that is the way teams want to take how we’re playing, [that’s] fantastic.”

 Jeffrey R. Larnard can be reached at jlarnard@dailycollegian.com.

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