For the second straight week, tailback Jonathan Hernandez carried the No. 21 Massachusetts football team to victory, defeating Rhode Island, 36-27, in the last home opener at McGuirk Alumni Stadium on Saturday night.
Hernandez ran for a career-high 167 yards and found the end zone twice to lead the offensive attack for the Minutemen. The performance was the second game in a row in which Hernandez carried the ball for over 150 yards. In Week 1, against Holy Cross, he took the ball 29 times for 151 yards on the ground.
As much of a juggernaut as Hernandez was on the ground, the UMass defense made just as big of an impact in the game’s outcome.
Kirk Nelms, a freshman defensive back, recorded two key interceptions including one late in the fourth quarter that he returned 80-yards for a touchdown. That score effectively put the game out of reach for the Rams, with the Minutemen ahead by eight points.
“When I first caught it, I actually thought the receiver was really close to me,” Nelms said. “But I turned forward and saw there was a lot of room, so I just hugged the sideline and kept going.”
The game went back-and-forth between the two squads for most of the first half and the early part of the second. UMass quarterback Kellen Pagel made a few misreads, threw two interceptions and was also sacked once.
Pagel found his composure in the second half, however, and capitalized on every opportunity UMass had to take the lead.
Trailing the Rams by five points at the start of the fourth quarter, Pagel directed an 11-play scoring drive and ran an eight-yard bootleg into the end zone for a touchdown to put the Minutemen ahead, 22-21.
Later, after Nelms’ touchdown return, Pagel added a 22-yard touchdown pass to Julian Talley to give UMass a 36-21 lead, which it never relinquished.
“[Talley] is a great player and a great route runner,” said Pagel. “I was just going through my reads and each time he was open I was just taking it.”
Pagel finished the game 21-of-32 for 259 yards, with one touchdown and two interceptions; he also ran for one score. Catching eight balls for 108 yards and earning one touchdown, Talley tied a career-high in receiving yards.
URI quarterback Steve Probst finished 14-of-29 for 279 yards, with four touchdowns and two costly interceptions. Anthony Baskerville also caught four passes for 134 yards and had one score.
The Minutemen move to 2-0 on the season following the victory, and will travel to Chestnut Hill next weekend to take on Boston College. Kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m.
“You certainly want to go in anywhere with a win, but this one was a great win,” said UMass coach Kevin Morris. “We’re very excited to go over to Boston College. We’re going in as the underdog and they’re the home team favorite, so we’ve got to go in and play our best football.”
Michael Wood can be reached at email@example.com.