Running back tandem paying off for MinutemenIf there was any doubt before the start of the 2010 season that the No. 8 Massachusetts football team would rely heavily on the run, there is none now.
The formula of being a run-first team with the ability to keep defenses honest with the play-action has fueled the Minutemen offense to an impressive start.
Through four games, UMass (3-1, 1-0 Colonial Athletic Association) has averaged 212.8 rushing yards per contest, ranking third in the CAA behind Delaware and Villanova. The duo of John Griffin and Jonathan Hernandez has bolstered the backfield, allowing the Minutemen to use fresh legs late in games.
Griffin has 383 yards and four touchdowns on 79 carries, averaging 95.8 yards per game. Hernandez’s numbers are nearly identical, with the junior piling up 373 yards on 85 carries and six scores.
The only game where the Minutemen didn’t gain at least 200 rushing yards was in their most recent win against Stony Brook. Griffin, however, still carried the load on the ground with 132 yards on 23 chances.
“We definitely leaned on the running backs and again it came through in fine form,” UMass coach Kevin Morris said in a teleconference.
As a result of their strong running game, the Minutemen rank first in the CAA and second in the country in time of possession with an average of 36 minutes, 43 seconds per game.
Along with Griffin, Hernandez and the offensive line, quarterback Kyle Havens has been a significant factor in controlling the ball. The senior leads the CAA in passing (248.2) and total offense (252.2), while throwing five touchdowns. Havens hasn’t forced the ball either, committing only three interceptions, all coming in the last two games.
On the receiving end, Havens’ passes main target has been Anthony Nelson, who leads UMass with 25 catches.
“Anthony has been a great addition to our team and to our offense as well,” Morris said. “He’s a senior, very mature, very strong academically; he has a 3.8 GPA in economics. We got the full-package kid that we went out to get when Hofstra unfortunately dropped their program as we all know.”
The senior transfer leads the CAA in catches and ranks second in receptions per game with 6.25 behind New Hampshire’s Chris Jeannot. Nelson has at least five catches in every contest this season, with his season-high eight catches and 103 yards coming in the win against Holy Cross.
“He’s a guy who’s going to get the ball from here on out because he’s one of those guys you can rely on,” Morris said. “He’s getting along great with Kyle, [as a] matter of fact, they’re roommates and he’s really stayed in tune with the offense and those guys have hit it off.”
Heading into their matchup against Towson, the Minutemen will continue to rely on their ground game. The Tigers defense pressures the quarterback often, as defensive end Matt Morgan leads the CAA in sacks with three.
“They’re very athletic on defense, they run well and they’ll give you a different group of fronts with different zone pressures with it,” Morris said. “They’re not afraid to bring those defensive backs and the pressure is awesome.”
Griffin and Hernandez will face a Towson defense which ranks last in the CAA in rushing defense, allowing 200 yards per game, and also in red zone defense, allowing 15 touchdowns and four field goals in 19 trips.
Jay Asser can be reached at email@example.com.