Coming off its best performance of the season, the Massachusetts football team continues its search for win No. 1 in the Football Bowl Subdivision as it hosts undefeated Ohio on Saturday afternoon.
The contest marks UMass’ first Mid-American Conference affair at Gillette Stadium.
The Minutemen (0-4, 0-1 MAC) are fresh off a 471-yard performance on offense, by far the most they’ve racked up in any game this season. Running back Michael Cox led the way with 188 rushing yards and two touchdowns as the UMass offense continues to improve week by week.
“I thought last week we improved in a lot of areas,” quarterback Mike Wegzyn said. “I thought we looked head and shoulders where we were before. Each week we’ve been improving a bunch.”
After their opening week blanking at Connecticut on Aug. 30, the Minutemen have continued to improve on the scoreboard, starting with a six-point showing against Indiana and followed by 13-point and 16-point days against Michigan and Miami (Ohio), respectively.
UMass had the opportunity to make a bigger impact on the scoreboard in last week’s matchup against the RedHawks, but only came away with 13 points on five trips to the red zone. The Minutemen had a touchdown taken off the board with an offensive pass interference penalty, followed by a missed 36-yard field goal. Wegzyn also threw an interception at the 4-yard line to bring an abrupt halt to a 14-play, 61-yard drive.
“We really came down to just a few errors in the course of the game, offensively, that were major errors and they all seemed to happen somewhere inside the 10-yard-line,” UMass coach Charley Molnar said.
Molnar added that he felt the red zone was “foreign turf for us” since the offense hadn’t been in that position too often prior to its game at Miami. He feels the Minutemen will be more focused in that phase on Saturday.
“All the work that we’ve done in the red zone has got to start paying dividends for us because we have practiced (it) an awful lot,” Molnar said.
Wegzyn said team members focused on penalties and their play in the red zone this week in practice. He added that he felt this was the best week of practice UMass has had all season.
“Our biggest things last week were penalties and red zone, so I think this week in practice we’re focusing a lot on preventing all the penalties that we had going on and really improving our red zone offense,” Wegzyn said.
The Minutemen will have their hands full this week with a strong Bobcat team that comes into Gillette sporting a 4-0 record. The contest will be Ohio’s MAC season-opener.
Reports indicate that quarterback Tyler Tettleton will play after suffering an injury on Sept. 8 in the Bobcats’ 51-24 win over New Mexico State. Tettleton sat out last week as backup Derrius Vick started in his place.
Molnar said UMass has been planning for Tettleton to play.
“We’re preparing like he’s gonna play and it wouldn’t really change our preparation very much,” Molnar said. “We would do the same thing.”
Tettleton has been on a tear this season. In three starts, the redshirt junior has completed 66.7 percent of his passes for seven touchdowns against zero interceptions. Tettleton also averages 260.3 passing yards per game.
Ohio will be a test for the Minutemen defense as the Bobcats have put up an eye-popping 36.5 points per game and 465 yards per game.
UMass appeared to have found a playmaker on the defensive end last week in freshman linebacker Kassan Messiah. The rookie tallied 10 tackles (two for loss) and a sack in his first career start.
Molnar was optimistic about what he saw out of Messiah.
“I think he will be a playmaker for us on defense sooner or later and hopefully sooner,” Molnar said. “If (Saturday) is an indication of what he’s capable of, he’s gonna have an awfully good career here.”
Receiver Marken Michel is questionable for Saturday’s game as is safety Christan Birt, according to Molnar. Freshmen Khary Bailey-Smith or Joe Colton would fill in for Birt if he is inactive.
Sophomore linebacker Greg Hilliard is also questionable while freshman Matt Sparks is out.
Saturday’s game can be watched on ESPN3 and heard on the radio on 105.5 WEEI (Springfield).
Stephen Sellner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @Stephen_Sellner.