For the first time in weeks, the Massachusetts football team received big plays from its defense to get much needed stops and turnovers in a 39-24 win over Maine on Saturday.
Linebacker Tyler Holmes, the leader of the Minutemen defense, had two interceptions and returned both for touchdowns, putting him in the same class as Anton McKenzie and Jerard White as the only players in UMass history with two interceptions for scores in a career.
The touchdowns were also firsts for Holmes, who is now tied in the Colonial Athletic Association with a league-leading five interceptions this season.
“I wanted to take one back since I started playing,” Holmes said. “Always in practice, me and my friends always joke, ‘When are you going to take one to the crib, when are you going to score.’ Today was just my day.”
The junior became the first player in 2010 in all of Division I football to return two interceptions for touchdowns in one game, and just the 23rd all-time in the Football Championship Subdivision.
The last time the feat occurred was on Oct. 30, 2004, when Southeast Missouri State’s Kellin White accomplished it against UT Martin.
Holmes’ two touchdowns were part of the three scores the Minutemen received outside their offense. The other touchdown came on the first play of the game, as Ryan Carter took a reverse on a kickoff return and scampered 97 yards down the sideline.
“It certainly helps the overall atmosphere on the sidelines, there’s not as much tension,” UMass coach Kevin Morris said. “You get free points and those are big bonus points, and Tyler took both back. Again, another great player and we mention him every week because he’s always around the ball, and tonight he made a huge impact with the points by himself.”
The first takeaway came in the opening quarter with UMass leading, 19-7. Black Bears quarterback Warren Smith, in an attempt to generate offense, forced a pass to a receiver covered by Holmes. The linebacker took advantage and returned the interception 18 yards for a score.
On his second touchdown, Holmes read Smith’s eyes and jumped the receiver’s route to return an interception 50 yards. The score gave the Minutemen a 39-16 lead and put the game out of reach for Maine.
“Coach does a great job in film telling me to read off the quarterback’s intentions, he tells you where he wants to go,” Holmes said. “So I just played off his eyes and saw where he wanted to go, made the jump and it led to a score for us.”
Entering the week, UMass had four defensive interceptions, ranking it in the bottom half of the conference. Prior to Holmes’ two takeaways, the Minutemen hadn’t picked off a pass since Sept. 25 on the road against Stony Brook.
Along with Holmes, defensive back Mike Lee had his first career interception to seal the victory late in the fourth quarter. The turnover came when the Maine offense was driving to attempt a comeback.
“Well, the turnovers are the big thing,” Morris said. “The stops are great, obviously, but the turnovers are what we were lacking. We hadn’t had a turnover in a few games and an impact turnover at that.”
Last season, UMass intercepted 13 passes, with Holmes leading the team with four. This year, New Hampshire leads the league with 18 interceptions, while William & Mary had a conference-best three return touchdowns on interceptions.
The Minutemen defense will look to continue its strong play next weekend against Delaware, the second-highest scoring offense in the CAA.
Jay Asser can be reached at email@example.com.