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Minutemen look to bounce back

The No. 19 Massachusetts football team looks to put last week’s defeat to No.1 Richmond behind them, and put itself back in the driver’s seat in the race for the conference title this Saturday at Maine.

UMass (4-3, 2-2 Colonial Athletic Association) dropped out of the top spot in the CAA North last week, but looks to bounce back against the Black Bears. Maine’s last game was also a loss to Richmond two weeks ago, as they are coming off a bye week.

With four conference games left in the season, the Minutemen will have to play at least .500 football if they want to overtake New Hampshire, which leads the CAA North at 3-1. Saturday’s game, though, is equally important for the Black Bears, (3-4, 2-2 CAA) who are currently tied for second in the conference. Whoever wins Saturday’s game holds the tiebreaker, should the teams remain tied at the end of the season.

“Every game’s a must win,” UMass coach Kevin Morris said. “It’s the CAA, and you want to win every game you play no matter who you’re playing. Must wins are every week.”

After struggling to run the ball last week, the Minutemen have a prime opportunity to use their strong running attack against the Black Bears. UMass, which currently averages 137.1 yards per game, looks to have an advantage against the 10th-ranked rushing defense in the CAA at 174.6 yards per game.

The question for the Minutemen though, is who will be starting at running back next week. Tony Nelson was held out of last week’s game, still nursing a thigh contusion. Jon Hernandez, who currently ranks fifth in the conference in yards per game and may have shed the title of back up, started the game against the Spiders, but was taken out due to injury. Senior fullback Chris Zardas replaced him in the back field.

Nelson and Hernadez, though, are both back, and are currently slated to play this week, according to Morris.

“They’re better now, just like last week because everyone was healthy and then they end up not. Right now, everybody’s good to go. So we’ll have them participating and ready to go.”

The decision of who will start the game, though, will be based on health. According to Morris, “It’ll come to who’s the healthiest coming out of practice.”

The UMass defense looks to continue its success, despite giving up 34 points to the Spiders. Repeatedly forced to defend a short field due to the offense’s seven turnovers, the defense limited Richmond to only 236 yards of total offense. The defense proved especially effective against Spiders quarterback Eric Ward, who accumulated just 52 yards through the air with an interception.

A strong defensive effort will be vital against the Black Bears and quarterback Eric Smith, who transferred from Iona College after its football program was cut. Smith is third in the conference in passing with 215.2 yards per game and Landis Williams is the conference leader in receptions per game (6.33).

UMass counters with a strong running game, junior Kyle Havens (219.1 yards passing per games) and wide receiver Victor Cruz, who leads the conference with 77.3 yards receiving per game.

To win Saturday, the Minutemen will have to bounce back from their rough performance against Richmond in which Havens was pulled. For Morris, though, it should not be a problem, as long as the team doesn’t look to far ahead or behind.

“Does any game make a different season? I don’t think so, if you play it game-to-game and say, ‘hey, this is a must win because it’s the next best game we got,’ which is this weekend,” Morris said.

Nick O’Malley can be reached at nomalley@student.umass.edu

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