Having a more balanced offense and pounding the rock on the ground was one of Kevin Morris’ keys to this season for the Massachusetts football team.
In the opening game at McGuirk Stadium on Saturday afternoon against William & Mary, the Minutemen (1-0) did just that with their dynamic combination of tailbacks in Jonathan Hernandez and John Griffin.
En route to defeating the No. 4-ranked Tribe, 27-23, the duo combined for 216 yards on the ground and three of UMass’ four touchdowns for the day. Hernandez led the way with 132 yards on 25 carries while Griffin, a noteworthy transfer from Northeastern in the offseason, amassed 84 yards on 21 chances.
“It’s great to have Jonathan Hernandez here for relief for me and also myself for relief for Jonathan,” Griffin said after the game. “If one of us has a bad game, it’s kind of a one-two punch so we never miss a beat, regardless of who’s in the game, who’s starting and who’s coming in. I feel like with me and Hernandez in the backfield, it’s a really potent threat here and it’s a one-two punch, you’re not losing a step regardless of who’s in the backfield.”
“I don’t think it could have been better script-wise and how you use both those guys,” Morris said. “Just looking at the stats, one guy carried it 25, one guys carried it 21. Instead of one guy carrying it 46, we’re able to split that up and be very efficient at the end of the game with fresh legs. They’re both premier backs in the league at the same time, it’s not like they’re two average Joe’s. These are high-level John’s.”
Hernandez set up the five-yard go-ahead touchdown for Griffin with a 64-yard catch and run late in the fourth quarter. After failing to convert the two-point conversion, junior All-American Tyler Holmes sealed the victory on defense. The linebacker picked off Tribe quarterback Mike Callahan on a deflected pass to tailback Jonathan Grimes.
After getting the possession back, the Minutemen still had to run out the clock. On a critical fourth down, UMass relied on its strength as Hernandez ran for seven yards, leaving William & Mary (0-1) with no timeouts to extend the game.
In the air, quarterback Kyle Havens found a favorite target in newcomer Anthony Nelson. Nelson, another senior transfer who figures to be a weapon this year, caught five of Havens’ 15 completions and racked up 78 yards, including 36 on a touchdown reception for UMass’ first score this season.
“I’m comfortable with Anthony,” Havens said. “He’s my roommate and I actually live with the kid. You can ask coach Morris, he makes us leave the field after practice because [Nelson] will want to throw extra routes to get timing down. He’s a real workhorse, he’ll do anything to get things right and I’m right there to do it with him.”
William & Mary took a 16-14 lead into halftime on the strength of a Jimmy Hobson five-yard touchdown reception and 28-yard scramble for a score by Callahan. After throwing for 130 yards in the first half, Callahan was held to 92 yards in the second half as the UMass defense clamped down.
The Tribe, however, had a 23-14 lead early in the fourth quarter after Callahan connected with wide receiver Cameron Dohse on a 34-yard touchdown pass.
Though turnovers were even at one apiece for the game, the Minutemen were fortunate to only lose one of the five fumbles they put on the ground.
UMass returns to McGuirk next Saturday when the Minutemen take on in-state rival Holy Cross at 6 pm.
Jay Asser can be reached at email@example.com.