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Minutemen out of playoff picture with loss

Jeff Bernstein, Collegian Staff

The Massachusetts football team hoped to earn a bid to the Football Championship Subdivision playoff tournament, but its hopes of doing so faded in the final minute of Saturday’s game against Rhode Island.

The Rams crushed the Minutemen’s postseason hopes, as a last-minute touchdown bucked UMass, 37-34, in the final game of the regular season.

The No. 19 Minutemen (6-5, 4-4 Colonial Athletic Association) couldn’t halt the Ram (5-6, 4-4 CAA) offense in the second half, as quarterback Steve Probst propelled URI to a late rally.

Down 34-29 with one minute, 10 seconds to play in the game, Probst and receiver Brandon Johnson-Farrell connected on a three-yard pass for the game-winning touchdown.

The UMass offense had an opportunity to at least tie the score in the final minute, but Evan Shields intercepted a Kyle Havens pass near midfield with 44 seconds remaining to seal the Ram victory and the Minutemen’s playoff fate.

“We were trying to come back and make something happen with under a minute left,” UMass coach Kevin Morris said in an interview following  the game with CBS-3 Springfield. “[Havens] made an ill-advised throw that was intercepted, but the defense had their shot on the field at the end, but we let up a score.”

A Minutemen win could have earned the squad a spot in the FCS tournament, but the Maroon and White were omitted from the field of 20 teams selected on Sunday morning.

Havens finished 25-of-42 for 373 yards and three touchdowns (two passing, one rushing) to lead a UMass offense which gained 506 yards. Anthony Nelson led all receivers with 129 yards and one touchdown on four catches, and tailback Jonathan Hernandez had 26 carries for 139 yards and a touchdown.

URI took a 29-28 lead on a four-yard Probst touchdown run with 6:34 left in the game, capping a 13-play drive that began at its own 10-yard line. Probst and running back Anthony Ferrer (17 carries, 125 yards) accounted for all 90 yards on the drive and split carries to rush for a combined 195 yards on the afternoon.

With 3:32 to play, the Minutemen retook the lead after a one-yard run by Hernandez. The drive was sparked by a 40-yard kick return by Jesse Julmiste to the Ram 47-yard line. But Deontray Johnson returned the ensuing UMass kickoff for 48 yards to set up the final score of the game.

Following the long return, Probst (17-of-39, 200 yards, three touchdowns) ran 11 yards to the Minutemen 30-yard line, then completed a 21-yard pass to Johnson-Farell to set up first-and-goal on the 9-yard line. UMass kept the Rams out of the end zone on three straight running plays before converting on the final score.

Special teams play and particularly the kicking unit were a concern for the Minutemen leading up to Saturday’s game, and the unit faltered in the first half. Kicker/punter Caleb Violette missed a field goal and had a punt blocked, opening up a URI scoring run which began late in the second quarter and continued after halftime.

Violette’s kick came from 29 yards away, hitting the left upright with an opportunity to put UMass up 10-3 early in the second quarter. The miss was his fourth in as many attempts spanning the past two games.

Prior to that, Morris opted to run an offensive play on 4th-and-12 on the Ram 21-yard line, as opposed to attempting a field goal. The Minutemen, who rank among the best in the nation in fourth down conversions, also failed to convert on a 4th-and-3 on the URI 9-yard line in the second quarter, going 1-for-4 during the game.

UMass led 14-3 in the second quarter, but the Rams scored 17 consecutive points to take a lead on their first possession in the second half. After a Minutemen three-and-out, URI drove 54 yards in a minute and a half to take a 20-14 lead with 12:30 left in the third quarter.

The Minutemen answered back quickly with a touchdown 25 seconds later on a two-yard Havens touchdown rush, set up by a 58-yard Nelson reception.

Later in the third quarter, Hernandez found a running lane and broke free for a 30-yard scamper to push the UMass lead to 28-20.

The Minutemen had eight penalties for 86 yards and committed two turnovers.

Dan Gigliotti can be reached at dgigliot@student.umass.edu.

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