FOXBORO — At times, the Massachusetts football team has looked like it belongs in the Football Bowl Subdivision and Mid-American Conference.
And holding a 21-14 lead early in the third quarter on Friday with freshman quarterback A.J. Doyle impressing in his first collegiate start, spectators fell into the trap of thinking this game was the Minutemen’s to lose.
But that’s exactly what they did, just as they have countless times this season. And according to UMass coach Charley Molnar, they got exactly what they deserved.
The Minutemen (1-11, 1-7 MAC) allowed 28 unanswered points in the second half and Doyle threw a pair of interceptions within 33 seconds of each other to stall out a promising afternoon, falling to Central Michigan, 42-21, in front of 6,385 fans at Gillette Stadium in the final game of their inaugural season in the FBS.
“(When) you have your foot on someone’s throat, you can’t pick your foot up and reposition it,” Molnar said after the game. “We have a team that’s down and for some reason we let them up.”
The Chippewas’ (6-6, 4-4 MAC) ground game wore down the Minutemen late once again as running back Zurlon Tipton racked up four touchdowns – three coming in the second half – and 185 rushing yards on 25 carries, marking the first opponent to score four times against UMass since Kevin Richardson did so on Dec. 16, 2006, for Appalachian State in the Football Championship Series Championship game.
Doyle finished the game 30-of-45 for 253 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. Doyle was in rhythm for the majority of the first half, completing 18-of-26 passes and leading UMass on three scoring drives as the Minutemen were tied at 21 at the break.
Tight end Rob Blanchflower had a career day, finishing with personal bests in catches (10) and receiving yards (100) to go along with a touchdown.
With the score tied at 21 with two minutes, 21 seconds left in the third quarter, Doyle misread a zone-drop by CMU defender Jahleel Addae, who intercepted his pass and returned it 30 yards to the Minutemen 9-yard-line. Molnar called the turnover “a real killer,” as one play later, Tipton scored to give the Chippewas a 28-21 lead.
To make matters worse, Doyle was picked again just three plays later – this time on a deflection – which CMU turned into seven points yet again to take a commanding 35-21 lead.
The contest reemphasized UMass’ inability to close out games in the second half. Last Saturday, the Minutemen had a 19-7 third quarter lead that was squandered by a 22-0 finish by Buffalo in a 29-19 loss. It was the same case in UMass’ 37-34 loss to Ohio on Sept. 29 as the Minutemen coughed up a 27-20 lead thanks to 17 unanswered points by the Bobcats in the fourth quarter.
“Believe it or not, some guys get complacent out there,” Molnar said. “On a particular play they don’t play as hard as they can. And you can’t have that, especially in the second half of a tight football game.”
The loss caps a disappointing transition season for UMass and one that produced its fair share of low points. Oftentimes, the Minutemen were overmatched physically and athletically by opponents that are made up of FBS recruits compared to UMass’ supply of FCS players that were thrown into FBS play.
But Molnar believes his team needs to utilize the offseason to get stronger in the weight room to prevent teams from imposing its muscle to grind out games in the second half.
“We just need more time in the weight room to level the playing field, to become a stronger football team because I think you can see in the MAC, just about every team, if they can grind you down, they will,” Molnar said.
For 15 seniors, Friday’s game marked the final time they’ll don UMass uniforms, bringing an end to careers that started with an FCS team playing at McGuirk Alumni Stadium and closed with an FBS squad trekking the turf of Gillette Stadium.
Perry McIntyre was emotional coming off the field for the final time, saying that all four of his seasons with the Minutemen were running through his mind and was proud to be a part of the program’s transition to the FBS.
“Being a part of the first class to move up to the FBS level is definitely an honor,” McIntyre said. “We didn’t go through a lot of high’s during the season, but we stuck together and I’m very proud to be part of this team.”
Blanchflower was disappointed to see the seniors’ careers end on this note, particularly McIntrye, whom Blanchflower has battled with in practice all season long.
“Seeing these guys come off (the field), I was so disappointed,” Blanchflower said. “We were all so amped ready to go to fight for these guys, guys like Perry.
“I can’t say enough about Perry,” Blanchflower continued. “Every day in practice, the guy’s going 100 miles per hour and I have to hit so I know. It’s not fun at all. He’s just an inspirational person to be around.”
McIntyre also had some advice for potential recruits to convince them to come to UMass despite its rough opening campaign in the FBS.
“I would just tell them that if you want to the get best out of your potential, you would come here because we work hard,” he said. “We work extremely hard and they’re gonna make you a right person, first and foremost.”
Molnar knows the transition isn’t going to get any easier as the team prepares for its second season in the FBS. He knows there will still be growing pains, but he’s been impressed with his team’s attitude throughout the season, no matter how difficult it got.
“These guys believed they could win every time they went out there,” Molnar said. “There wasn’t a team they were afraid of. Our guys played to win. There were times our intensity waned but guys never quit. So when you’ve got that, you’ve got something going so we have to build upon that.”
McIntyre will be sure to keep an eye on the Minutemen’s continued progression as a member of the FBS and says he’ll continue to be a UMass fan even with his playing days over and done with.
“I’m all the way in,” McIntyre said. “UMass is in my heart.”
Stephen Sellner can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @Stephen_Sellner.