Dubbed as a 45.5-point underdog by Las Vegas heading into this Saturday’s matchup against No. 17 Michigan, it’s hard to imagine that it was only two years ago when the Massachusetts football team walked into Ann Arbor, Mich., and nearly pulled off an upset of the football-powerhouse Wolverines.
The Minutemen came back from a 35-17 fourth-quarter deficit to make it a five-point game with two minutes, five seconds remaining, but the Wolverines ran out the clock and escaped with a 42-37 win on Sept. 18, 2010.
This time around, however, UMass (0-2) enters The Big House with a pair of blowout defeats under its belt in its first season in the Football Bowl Subdivision as the Minutemen prepare for dynamic quarterback Denard Robinson and the explosive Wolverines.
UMass coach Charley Molnar isn’t looking for a moral victory on Saturday.
“Every game we play we set out to win. I don’t care if we’re playing Michigan or whoever else is on our schedule,” Molnar said. “Some opponents are harder than others, but they’re all very tough. There’s no easy game on our schedule from our perspective, so our guys just have to prepare as hard as they can, play as hard as they can and make plays when the opportunity arises.”
In their first two games of the season, Molnar said the Minutemen offense has missed opportunities to make big plays. He has stressed the importance of the “little things” that he feels is the difference between a broken play and a big gain.
“If you look at the video against UConn, against Indiana, there were big plays for the taking,” Molnar said. “Either a running back missed a cut, one receiver missed a block, quarterback missed a read, all that stuff and yet the plays are just sitting there ready to be made. We can’t afford to miss those this Saturday if we want to be in the ball game.”
UMass quarterback Mike Wegzyn echoed the same thoughts as Molnar, expecting the Minutemen offense to continue to make strides. UMass scored its first touchdown of the season against the Hoosiers on Saturday after being shutout on Aug. 30 against Connecticut.
“We definitely took a big step from game one to game two and I’m expecting to make another big step into game three,” Wegzyn said. “As an offense, (we need to) just keep making strides.”
The unit will have to do so without starting receiver Marken Michel, who won’t make the trip with the team, Molnar said, due to a shoulder bruise. Molnar said he wants Michel to be 100 percent for UMass’ Mid-American Conference opener at Miami (Ohio) on Sept. 22.
While offensive production will be important to stay in the game, there is arguably more pressure on the defense to keep the contest within reach as the Minutemen face off against the Heisman trophy hopeful, Robinson, and the prolific Wolverine offense.
UMass struggled mightily last week, surrendering 333 rushing yards as the Indiana offense racked up 596 total yards of offense.
Junior defensive back Antoine Tharpe, who was on the 2010 team that nearly beat Michigan, said the unit needs to cut down on its mental mistakes in order to prevent a similar showing.
“We just can’t beat ourselves,” Tharpe said. “We can’t have all those mental mistakes. You know, we just can’t beat ourselves. (It’s as) simple as that.”
Absorbing the setting
With a capacity of more than 100,000, The Big House is one of the most treasured facilities in all of college football.
While some UMass players played in the stadium in the 2010 meeting, the Minutemen will suit up a wide range of underclassmen that haven’t played in a setting such as this before.
Senior center Quinton Sales offered some advice to the younger guys on the team about playing on the stage.
“Don’t worry about playing in The Big House in front of 100,000, treat it how you play every game,” Sales said. “That will take the nervous level down. Just play football and have fun and embrace the experience.”
For Wegzyn, this experience is more than just a game; it’s a homecoming.
Wegzyn attended Northville High School in Northville, Mich., through his junior year, which is approximately a 30-minute drive to The Big House.
“I went to a bunch of games as a kid,” Wegzyn said. “I grew up within that environment. Going to Michigan games, watching Braylon Edwards, Chad Henne and all them, so it’s a huge deal for me. I feel like I’m going to know half the stadium when I go there.”
Wegzyn said he has plenty of family and friends that will be in attendance on Saturday. While some of his supporters will don the maroon and white colors, Wegzyn said some of his friends will stick to Michigan’s blue and yellow colors.
“Some of my friends, they go to Michigan so they’re saying, ‘I can’t wear maroon but I’ll cheer for you,’” Wegzyn said.
The game is scheduled to kickoff at 3:30 p.m.
Stephen Sellner can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @MDC_Sellner.