FOXBORO – Some football teams might be able to overcome their offenses leaving multiple touchdowns on the table and still manage to pull out a victory, but the Massachusetts football team is simply not good enough to afford that kind of luxury.
That much was painfully evident for UMass during its 29-19 loss to Buffalo in front of 12,649 fans at Gillette Stadium on Saturday.
Instead of three touchdowns, the Minuteman (1-10, 1-6 Mid-American Conference) offense walked away from first half drives penetrating to the opposing 15, 22 and 1-yard lines with two field goals and a turnover on downs.
Six points instead of 21. That kind of math rarely adds up to a win.
Coach Charley Molnar understood perfectly well that early missed opportunities would, sooner or later, come back to bite his team and make life difficult late in the game.
“I knew they would come back to haunt us,” he said. “They always do.”
UMass played well enough to take a 13-0 lead – its largest lead at Gillette all season – into halftime, but, as has more often than not been the case this season, the team’s defense could only bail out a struggling offense for so long.
The Bulls (4-7, 3-4 MAC) broke out for four touchdowns in the final two quarters while the Minutemen sputtered to only six more points, completing a second half collapse that played out much like a car accident in slow motion.
“This afternoon could really be summed up as a tale of two halves,” Molnar said. “The first half we went into the locker room with great momentum, great confidence and great enthusiasm. … For a team that’s made a lot of errors and lost a lot of football games, we had confidence in the locker room.
“(In) the second half, when the offense didn’t move the ball … the momentum of the game shifted at that time and we gave them life.”
Two plays stood out for UMass as significant pendulum swings in the opposite direction: a blocked punt return-for-a-touchdown by Buffalo special teamer Kyndal Minniefield early in the third quarter to make it a 13-7 game and a botched snap following a Minuteman touchdown just a few minutes later.
Molnar credited the Bulls’ superior effort and said his team never quite regrouped following the two special teams miscues.
UMass built the 13-point lead it later squandered on a pair of Blake Lucas field goals, including a career-long 39-yard make, and a 14-yard scoring strike from quarterback Mike Wegzyn to tight end Rob Blanchflower with only 56 seconds left before halftime.
The Minutemen might have opened a wider lead, but Buffalo stuffed a pair of Michael Cox goal line carries on UMass’ opening drive, resulting in the turnover on downs.
Pressed to respond to the special teams blunders, the UMass offense never found the groove it was looking for, due largely to last minute, injury-related shuffling along the offensive line that saw right tackle Anthony Dima and left tackle Michael Boland scratched from the starting lineup during pre-game warm-ups.
With only center Quinton Sales playing his projected position, the Minutemen struggled mightily up front, surrendering a season-high eight sacks and failing to open running lanes for a rushing attack that managed a dismal 1.4 yards per carry.
“It’s frustrating,” Molnar said. “We seem to go through this every week where we are playing with new guys. Anthony Dima has been unquestionably playing the best on our offensive line, at least through the last three to four weeks.
“To lose your best offensive lineman, when you don’t have many good ones, was a blow to our team.”
The continued up-and-down play of Wegzyn was also to blame for UMass’ poor second half performance. The redshirt freshman completed 20 of his 40 pass attempts for 215 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions.
Wegzyn was particularly harassed by Bull defenders late in the game.
“That’s a great team we played and a great defense,” he said. “Some of those guys out there are the real deal. Obviously, at the end they showed what they could do.”
Following the point after attempt fail that left the Minutemen clinging to a 19-7 lead, the Buffalo offense picked up steam, rallying around quarterback Joe Licata. Licata, who made his third straight start in place of injured starter Alex Zordich, completed 18-of-30 passes for 226 yards, an interception and a pair of touchdowns.
“That’s what we’ve recruited him to do and now he’s got an opportunity to build on that,” Bulls coach Jeff Quinn said. “Each week he’s grown a lot more in terms of the system, managing it and taking that lead and I think everybody kind of rallies behind Joe.”
Licata found tight end Jimmy Gordon for a 3-yard touchdown with two minutes, 13 seconds remaining in the third quarter and later hooked up with standout receiver Alex Neutz early in the fourth quarter for a 6-yard score to take a 22-19 lead.
Neutz finished the day with a game-high nine receptions, befuddling the UMass defense all afternoon.
Lead in hand, the Buffalo offense was content to pound the Minuteman defensive front seven and chew up the game clock. Like the process of running water eroding away solid rock over time, the one-two punch of running backs Rashad Jean and Brandon Murie slowly ate away at the strength of the UMass defensive line, culminating in a 12-yard Murie score with two minutes left to play that put the game away for good.
“Up until the fourth quarter I thought they played well,” Molnar said. “For three quarters we did a great job controlling the line of scrimmage, but in the fourth we were either out of gas or out of motivation.”
Linebacker Perry McIntyre, who finished with a team-high 13 tackles and a sack, agreed, saying the game was lost for UMass after the defense began to tire.
“We needed our defense to be at their very best in the fourth quarter, but the Buffalo running game just (ground) them down,” Molnar said. “If we had done better on offense, those guys surely would have had more juice at the end of the game.”
The Minutemen have one last chance to add to their 2012 win total when the team welcomes MAC rival Central Michigan to Gillette at 3 p.m. on Friday in their season finale.
Daniel Malone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @Daniel_Malone.