There were points during the season where it seemed this day might not come.
The Massachusetts football team was in the midst of a grueling and, at times, painful-to-watch stretch, especially after its most recent 63-0 loss to Northern Illinois last weekend.
But after Ryan Delaire sacked and stripped Akron quarterback Dalton Williams on fourth-and-two late in the fourth quarter to halt the Zips’ final bid to tie the game, UMass finally got its coveted first win as a member of the Football Bowl Subdivision with a 22-14 triumph on Saturday afternoon in Akron, Ohio.
The Minutemen (1-9, 1-5 Mid-American Conference) led the entire contest and halted Akron’s final possession with one minute, 22 seconds left in regulation, handing first-year UMass coach Charley Molnar his first career victory as a head coach.
“It was a really, really exciting moment, not only for me, but for the whole football team,” Molnar said in a postgame interview on UMassAthletics.com. “It had been a long time.”
A long time could be considered an understatement. In fact, it had been over a year since the Minutemen had experienced the feeling after a victory, with their last win coming on Oct. 29, 2011, in a 28-7 win at Richmond. Saturday’s victory brought an end to a 12-game losing streak dating all the way back to last year.
After the game, UMass players and coaches swarmed around Molnar, embracing the moment and collectively putting aside the difficulties the season had previously brought.
“I think I got hugged by everybody on the team,” Molnar said. “I’ve never been kissed by so many men before.”
The Zips (1-10, 0-7 MAC) had a chance to force overtime, starting with the ball at their own 22-yard line with 1:54 left to play in the game needing a touchdown and a two-point conversion to tie. Akron got all the way to its own 49-yard line, but couldn’t convert on third-and-two and Williams was sacked by Delaire to turn the ball over on downs and put a stamp on an impressive performance by the UMass defense.
The Minutemen picked off Williams four times and allowed 427 yards of offense on the day; the unit’s best mark since Oct. 20.
Molnar had nothing but confidence in his defense during the Zips’ final drive.
“I know we kind of bent a little bit, but I had a feeling that we wouldn’t break,” he said. “The way that we had been playing all day on defense, I knew someone was going to step up and make a play.”
But the game didn’t get off to a glorious start for UMass.
Quarterback Mike Wegzyn was picked off on first-and-goal at the Akron 2-yard-line to bring an abrupt halt to a 15-play, 71-yard drive that came away with no points.
But the Minutemen offense kept on marching, driving inside the Zips’ 10-yard-line on their next two possessions, only to come away with a pair of 23-yard field goals by Blake Lucas to take a 6-0 lead with 11:37 to play in the first half.
UMass extended its lead to two possessions when Wegzyn hit receiver Alan Williams on a 24-yard strike to take a 12-0 lead after the two-point conversion failed.
Lucas added another field goal from 35 yards out to take a 15-0 lead into the locker room at halftime.
Akron made it 15-7 midway through the third quarter, but Wegzyn punched in a touchdown on a 1-yard quarterback sneak with 3:59 remaining to push the lead back to two possessions at 22-7.
The Zips cut the deficit to one possession at 22-14 when Williams hit Marquelo Suel for a 19-yard score, but that was as close as the home team would get as Molnar was given the Gatorade bath by graduate student and defensive lineman Hafis Williams at the end of the game.
For Molnar and company, the win takes some of the pressure that was mounting on their shoulders as their first win kept eluding them.
“The proverbial monkey’s off our back now,” Molnar said. “Now we can just really relax and concentrate and play winning football, and that’s our goal and that’s our objective is to finish out with a win again this upcoming week when we go home to Gillette.”
Wegzyn completed 23-of-39 passes for 266 yards, two touchdowns (one through the air and one on the ground) and an interception. Alan Williams hauled in eight balls for 86 yards and a score, while Rob Blanchflower had six grabs and Deion Walker finished with five.
Molnar doesn’t expect his team to want to go back to the dog days that haunted the Minutemen through the first 10 weeks of the season.
“Our team feels really, really good,” Molnar said. “They know what it feels like to win now. I can’t imagine them wanting to go back to that other feeling.”
UMass has a chance to make it two wins in a row on Saturday when it hosts Buffalo at Gillette Stadium.
Stephen Sellner can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @Stephen_Sellner.