FOXBORO – The Massachusetts football team was in complete control on Saturday.
UMass (1-10, 1-6 Mid-American Conference) was riding high with confidence and enthusiasm, dominating the first half against a Buffalo team that only mustered 134 yards and didn’t run a single play in the red zone.
And then, in the matter of one play, everything changed.
With the Minutemen leading 13-0, Bulls defensive back Adam Redden capitalized on a breakdown in UMass’ punt-blocking scheme and bull-rushed punter Colter Johnson, blocking the kick. The loose ball bounced into the hands of teammate Kyndal Minniefield, who ran it back 33 yards for Buffalo’s first touchdown of the game.
“The momentum of the game shifted dramatically at that time and we gave them life,” UMass coach Charley Molnar said in a postgame interview.
The Bulls (4-7, 3-4 MAC) took over for the remainder of the contest, outscoring the Minutemen 22-6 over the final 25 minutes to grab a come-from-behind, 29-19 victory at Gillette Stadium.
UMass used a spread punting formation with three personal protectors in front of the punter, but Redden came off the left edge unabated, swarming Johnson for the block.
After the game, Molnar said he couldn’t tell who was at fault on the play since it happened so fast.
“I just saw the moment before the guy blocked it, so how he got there so quickly, I can’t tell you that.”
Tight end Rob Blanchflower was conversing with the offense on the bench about the previous drive when the block happened.
“I heard the crowd so I looked up,” he said. “It was disappointing to see.”
“They just had better effort than we did on that punt,” Molnar said. “We just never really recouped from that point forward.”
The Minutemen offense hit a stand-still from that point forward. UMass only managed 82 yards of offense over the final 25:31 and put together just a single scoring drive covering only 41 yards. Prior to the blocked punt, the Minutemen had 242 yards of offense.
UMass quarterback Mike Wegzyn managed the offense effectively in the first half, taking what the defense gave him and methodically leading the Minutemen down the field. But Wegzyn was under duress for the final 25 minutes, getting sacked five times as the relentless Buffalo pass rush was finally able to establish itself and get after the young signal-caller.
“Buffalo’s defensive line and linebackers definitely came after us,” Blanchflower said. “That was a huge factor pressuring Mike and that’s a big reason why we couldn’t get the ball rolling.”
But arguably the biggest difference after the blocked punt came from the Bulls themselves. Buffalo tallied 253 yards after the turning point, including three long, grueling scoring drives. The Bulls’ first eight drives managed an average of 17.5 yards per sequence. Three of Buffalo’s next five drives covered 79, 77 and 80 yards, respectively, all resulting in touchdowns to flip the scoreboard in the visiting team’s favor.
In the first half, the Minutemen defense played arguably its best half of the season. But in the fourth quarter, the unit couldn’t get off the field as the Bulls converted on 6-of-7 third downs to prolong drives and wear down UMass.
“That was a big difference and that’s why we probably lost,” UMass linebacker Perry McIntyre said.
But it wasn’t always that way for the Minutemen. UMass had all the momentum after the first 30 minutes and it looked like the home team was playing with more confidence coming off its first win of the season a week ago against Akron.
“We felt like momentum was on our side and most of all, for a team that’s made a lot of errors and lost a lot of football games, we had confidence in the locker room,” Molnar said.
The Minutemen wrap up their inaugural season in the Football Bowl Subdivision on Friday when they host Central Michigan.
Stephen Sellner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @Stephen_Sellner.