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UMass protecting McGuirk, hope to stay undefeated at home

With all five of its victories coming at home this season, the Massachusetts football team looks to finish the season undefeated at McGuirk Alumni Stadium when it hosts James Madison Saturday. 

While road woes took a toll on UMass’ playoff hopes this season, the team’s play at home has been a saving grace, especially with the home-heavy schedule for the season. A chance to finish the season with a spotless home record is just another motivation for the team heading into Saturday’s match-up against the Dukes.

“It’s very important to us, to protect our home. That’s what we talk about. This game is real important [in order] to do that,” defensive end Michael Hanson said of the team’s home record. Hanson will be one of 19 seniors honored at Senior Day this weekend.

Running the numbers tells the difference between the Minutemen’s performance at home and on the road. This season, UMass (5-4, 3-3 Colonial Athletic Association) at home has won all of its games by an average of 35.6-11.6. On the road, though, the Minutemen have lost by an average score of 29.3-16.3. That success, though, is not something the team takes for granted, as UMass coach Kevin Morris and his team look to finish their home slate against the Dukes.

“You always want to defend your home turf. We’re a very prideful group, and we want to defend McGuirk Stadium. It’s our home; we want to win,” Morris said.

James Madison (4-5, 2-4 CAA), meanwhile, enters this weekend with a season that has been below expectations record-wise. The Dukes started off the season strong by tallying three straight wins against non-conference opponents, but ran into a four game skid once they began conference play.

“They’re a very tough team, very athletic. Their record doesn’t indicate how good of a team they are,” Morris said.

JMU’s struggles were compounded when junior quarterback Drew Dudzik broke his leg against Richmond in the team’s fifth game of the season. Dudzik was splitting snaps with freshman Justin Thorpe at the time. But, since the injury, the rookie quarterback has been thrust into the starting role. After initial struggles, though, (the Dukes were shutout 27-0 in Thorpe’s first full-time start), Thorpe has found success in the offense, winning CAA Rookie of the Week honors with his performance in last week’s win over Maine while leading the team in rushing and passing.

“Rookie of the Week last week tells you that he’s got some skills,” Morris said of Thorpe. “He can throw it, he can run it and he’s figuring out the tempo of play and figuring out their offense and he’s doing a real nice job.” 

Thorpe, who is a threat to both run and pass from the pocket, presents a particular challenge for the UMass defense. Although the Minutemen have played against mobile quarterbacks in Rhode Island’s Chris Paul-Etienne and Richmond’s Eric Ward, Thorpe enters the game with more rushing yards (641, which ranks sixth in the CAA) than any player on either UMass or JMU.

“It’s hard, because you’ve got to think about stopping him as well as everyone else, running-wise with the quarterback,” Hanson said. “You’ve always got to worry about getting sacks and passing, but the fact that he can run brings another element to the game and another thing you have to worry about stopping.” 

The Minutemen are back over .500 with their 37-7 drumming and are currently tied for second place in the Colonial Athletic Association North with Maine. UMass currently trails No. 8 New Hampshire by two games.

With two games remaining on the conference schedule, the Minutemen are still alive in the race for the conference title, but do not control their own destiny. To have a chance, UMass must win out, while UNH must lose its final two games against No. 5 William & Mary and Maine.

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

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