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Strong start, tough finish for Minutemen campaign

Jeff Bernstein/Collegian

Though the Massachusetts football team put forth a notable effort and made an impression this season, it came up one win short of advancing to the postseason

“In the end, it was a disappointing season because we didn’t achieve our goal of making the playoffs,” UMass head coach Kevin Morris said.

In the first half of the year, it seemed the No. 19-ranked Minutemen (6-5, 4-4 Colonial Athletic Association) were well on their way after 4-1 record heading into the bye week. The lone loss came in a closely-contested shootout against a storied Michigan program on the road, 42-37. Despite dropping the most anticipated game on its schedule, UMass played well enough to raise some eyebrows.

Throughout the season, the Minutemen played games down to wire, something that Morris was pleased to see.

“We had some really quality games,” Morris said. “We had a lot of great individual efforts … The one thing we talked about was that we played hard for 60 minutes, so we’re very happy about that.”

The second half of the season, however, was a different story entirely. The Minutemen went 2-4, dropping their first two games out of the bye week and the final two contests of the year.

In the regular season finale against Rhode Island on the road, UMass needed a victory to make a strong a case to be selected by the Football Championship Subdivision committee for a postseason berth.

“The Rhode Island game and the Richmond game are the two games that stand out as games that we didn’t execute like we were capable of executing during the year,” Morris said. “If we would have done that at that point, we would have won those games, but we did not.”

In the disappointing loss to the Rams, the Minutemen allowed a 3-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Steve Probst to Brandon Johnson-Farrell with one minute, 10 seconds left in the contest. URI then punched in the 2-point conversion to earn the three-point win and end UMass’ season.

Against the Spiders right after the bye week, the Minutemen also allowed a game-winning drive. After not completing a pass until the final drive of the game, fourth-string freshman quarterback Montel White led the Spiders down the field and connected with Tre Gray for a 15-yard touchdown pass with nine seconds remaining for the 11-10 victory.

While UMass was arguably playing its best football of the year in the first half of the season, the bye week seemed to hurt the Minutemen. Morris, however, views the tough conference schedule in the second half as the reason for his team’s struggles down the stretch.

“I don’t think the bye week had much to do with it,” Morris said. “It was just a matter of continuing the focus and playing hard and well and playing as a team. In the second half we had all our conference games and those are usually the best teams on our schedule.”

Individually, various UMass players had career seasons. Quarterback Kyle Havens, after throwing for nine touchdowns and 15 interceptions in his first year as the starter in 2009, led the CAA in passing yards per game (244.7) and touchdowns (20). The senior was also called by multiple opposing head coaches as the most improved player in the conference.

Havens’ main target this season was senior Anthony Nelson, who transferred from Hofstra prior to the start of the year. The wide receiver led the league with 61 catches for 830 yards and four touchdowns, while being named to the ESPN Academic All-American Football First Team and New England Writers All-Star Team.

On defense, linebacker Tyler Holmes amassed 110 tackles, tied with fellow linebacker Mike Mele for the team-high. For his efforts, the junior co-captain was named a New England Writers All-Star, CAA Co-Defensive Player of the Year and team MVP.

The Minutemen also garnered national attention this season with their matchup against Michigan and their contest versus New Hampshire at Gillette Stadium, the home of the New England Patriots.

“It was great exposure for our kids and great experience for our kids, as well as for the program,” Morris said.

Though the future of the program is still up in the air with rumors of a possible move to the Mid-American Conference, Morris and Co. will look to make another run at the postseason next year in the CAA.

Jay Asser can be reached at jasser@student.umass.edu.

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