The scoreboard may have read 45-0, but the Massachusetts football team could see the distinct improvements from last season’s squad in its loss to Wisconsin last Saturday.
So much so, in fact, that the players were quick to point it out to their head coach.
“I had so many players come up to me to say, ‘Coach, we’re really close,’” UMass coach Charley Molnar said. “So they can see it and they can sense it.”
The Minutemen (0-1) have a chance to turn their progress into wins on Saturday when they take on former Colonial Athletic Association rival Maine in their 2 p.m. home opener at Gillette Stadium.
Not only is it a chance for UMass to capture its first win of the season, it’s a chance to finally get in the win column at its newest home field.
The Minutemen haven’t won a game at Gillette in seven tries since 2010. But Saturday marks their best chance to date.
The Black Bears (1-0) are UMass’ first Football Championship Subdivision opponent since its jump to Football Bowl Subdivision following the 2011 season. Since then, the Minutemen have had a chance to gather two FBS recruiting classes for their roster, something that will help make them a rare favorite in the game.
“That’s what we’re trying to do every week that we go out there, especially this week,” quarterback Mike Wegzyn said about trying to get that all-important first Gillette Stadium win. “I think this is gonna be a good week for us. I’m excited to be at Gillette and finally play in front of our own fans.”
A win on Saturday is certainly not guaranteed, however.
Just last weekend, six FCS teams pulled off stunning upsets over FBS opponents. For safety Devin Brown, it was a firm reminder that a win won’t simply be handed to them.
“If you look at Week 1, watching all the FCS teams beating the FBS teams,” Brown said. “That in itself was a wake-up call that you can’t take anybody lightly no matter who you are and who you’re playing against.”
This Maine team is also a veteran group with many of the same players that beat UMass in the team’s previous meeting in 2011.
With that being said, these Black Bears are also the same group that is projected to finish in the bottom half of the CAA standings, while the Minutemen appear to be getting better with each week.
“We’re on course to have a winning performance,” Molnar said. “Doesn’t guarantee a win but it means we have a chance.”
What UMass can guarantee is a much different look from its opponent.
The Minutemen go from facing a Wisconsin team that ran for nearly 400 yards on 44 carries, to a Black Bears team that is more apt to throw the ball in its up-tempo, spread offense.
Molnar, in fact, expects a bigger challenge from Maine quarterback Marcus Wasilewski than the one Badgers quarterback Joel Stave gave UMass.
“Offensively, (it’s) night and day,” Molnar said. “(A) no huddle, fast-paced offense. I would say that Maine’s quarterback is just a better pure passer than what we just saw this past week.
“They run to set up the pass; they’re a passing football team and if you’re not careful they’ll tempo you on defense and catch you in between substitutions before you can get your calls in so you gotta be on top of your game defensively.”
Brown isn’t quite as concerned. The UMass defense goes against the team’s spread offense every day in practice, so it isn’t something the defense is unfamiliar with.
“It’s not too big of an adjustment because we go against the spread every day when we go against our own offense,” he said. “We know Maine runs a lot of passing sets and they also run the ball so between us and Wisconsin I feel like we’re pretty prepared.”
Ultimately the most important challenge for the Minutemen on Saturday will be to avoid underestimating their opponent despite the hope to establish themselves as a legitimate FBS program.
“If you start viewing a team as worse than they are, perceiving them as bad, then you’re gonna play down to whatever level you perceive it as,” Wegzyn said. “Just the same as you should perceive every team as better than you as you’re preparing so you can play up to the calling.”
Nick Canelas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @NickCanelas.