April 17, 2014

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Minutemen look to make it two in a row against Buffalo

It might be as common an unwritten rule as one will find in sports.

After over 10 weeks of waiting, the Massachusetts football team finally need to put it into effect following its 22-14 win – the Minutemen’s first victory of both the 2012 season and the program’s Football Bowl Subdivision era – over Mid-American Conference rival Akron on Saturday.

Taylor C. Snow/Collegian

“It was a good feeling, but there’s that 24-hour rule,” quarterback Mike Wegzyn said. “You celebrate (for) 24 hours, you feel good about it, but now that’s passed, it’s over. We’ve got to move onto the next opponent.”

Having endured the recurring agony of close shootouts and embarrassing blowouts during its nine-game losing streak to start FBS play, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to forgive UMass (1-9, 1-5 MAC) players and coaches for clinging to the joy of their emotional first victory.

But coach Charley Molnar isn’t expecting that to be the case with his team.

“I think once you get to practice … it’ll be behind them,” he said. “It’ll long be gone. They can sit and think about it maybe in the winter if they choose to, but right now our focus has really now moved onto the University (at) Buffalo.”

The Minutemen may have ruled out the possibility of any post-euphoric hangover lingering into their conference matchup with the visiting Bulls (3-7, 2-4 MAC), but that doesn’t mean the team isn’t expecting a morale boost going into Saturday.

I think it definitely helps,” Wegzyn said. “Going on, not winning any games, you can say it doesn’t affect morale or anything, but it does. It definitely takes a toll on a team. I think getting that first win gives a lot of the guys more confidence.

“We kind of broke that barrier. It was a huge relief … kind of getting that out of the way. You can kind of move on and just try to win the last two (games).”

Molnar, too, sensed his team finally had the sizable weight of FBS expectations lifted from its shoulders, saying now the players could more fully focus on the Buffalo game.

Those positive vibes could quickly turn sour once more if UMass can’t take care of            business against another plausibly-beatable team in front of the Gillette Stadium crowd.

Wegzyn, who corrected himself for prefacing his statement with “if,” said it would be a big deal “when” the Minutemen do finally win one at home for the UMass fans.

To do so, the Minutemen look to slow the attack of Bulls’ redshirt freshman quarterback Joe Licata. Licata, who took over for the injured incumbent starter junior Alex Zordich, has passed for 412 yards and three touchdowns in leading Buffalo to back-to-back wins over Miami (Ohio) and Western Michigan.

“They made a change at quarterback and all the new guy has done has been to win two games in a row,” Molnar said. “He’s efficient and they do a great job of getting the right plays. He’s done a great job of managing the game up to this point.”

Molnar expects the Bulls to rely more heavily on its rushing attack, which sits middle-of-the-road in the MAC with a sixth-ranked 192.3 yards per game, led by junior running back Branden Oliver. Oliver, who is averaging over six yards per carry over the Bulls’ current win streak, enters Saturday with 801 rushing yards and five touchdowns.

“On offense, their running back is again about as good as we’ve seen,” Molnar said. “He’s not blazing fast, but he has good vision and great cuts. He does a great job of reading his blocks. It’s going to be a real challenge for our front seven playing against them.”

Oliver is listed as questionable for the game with a nagging ankle injury that caused him to miss four games earlier in the season.

Ultimately, UMass’ fortunes will continue to rest with the embattled redshirt freshman Wegzyn. Wegzyn, who, prior to the Akron victory, fell under criticism for sporadic play that resulted in being benched in favor of backup A.J. Doyle in four straight games, said the victory over Akron was a tremendous personal relief and helped to erase early season frustrations.

Taylor C. Snow/Collegian

Molnar was pleased with Wegzyn’s play last time out.

“I think Mike did a good job of managing the game for us,” Molnar said. “He also extended some plays, threw the ball away when he got into trouble, and didn’t force anything.

“For the most part, his decision making was good and improves weekly.”

The Minutemen hope that improvement continues with the 3 p.m. kickoff on Saturday.

Daniel Malone can be reached at dmalone@student.umass.edu and followed on Twitter @Daniel_Malone.

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