FOXBORO – It was the darkest 60 minutes of the Massachusetts football team’s life as a member of the Football Bowl Subdivision.
The Minutemen lacked heart, looked uninspired and clearly weren’t mature enough to avoid playing down to inferior competition in an embarrassing 24-14 loss to Maine on Saturday.
UMass didn’t just lose, it got beat down by a Football Championship Subdivision team.
There is no real explanation or excuse as to why or how this stunning turn of events transpired. But one thing is for certain: this team still has a long way to go before we can start talking about progress.
Since its first FBS game at the beginning of last season, the Minutemen have gradually gotten better and given people reason to believe in the long-term success of the program.
This was the first major setback.
UMass looked like it had started to turn the corner when it gave No. 23 Wisconsin a scare for almost two quarters. On Saturday, it looked awfully like the FCS team that lost to the Black Bears on the road two years ago.
The UMass defense allowed an FCS quarterback to throw for 267 yards on 20-of-28 passing and hit four different receivers on plays of more than 20 yards. It also allowed four different FCS running backs to combine for 253 yards and three touchdowns, including a 35-yard scamper that put the Black Bears up for good.
The only reason the Minutemen hung around to that point was because Maine had committed three turnovers and killed multiple drives due to careless penalties at the line of scrimmage.
Things were no better offensively. Both quarterbacks Mike Wegzyn and A.J. Doyle played a half of football, and neither was any good. They were good enough to lead one touchdown drive each, but poor enough to force Colter Johnson to punt the ball nine times against an FCS defense.
“A lot of people thought we should be the favorite because we’re FBS and they’re FCS,” UMass coach Charley Molnar said. “I knew by looking at the film, their roster, and their size that it was a pretty even matchup.”
That defeats the purpose of making an upgrade. You’re supposed to be better than the teams in the division below you. And based on what UMass brought to the Gillette Stadium turf on Saturday, this team is not.
If UMass wants to prove that it belongs in the FBS and Mid-American Conference, this wasn’t the way to do it.
The Minutemen technically weren’t the favorite in this game, but there was no question they should’ve played like they were supposed to be. They may only be at the beginning of their second FBS campaign, but they’ve already had two years to build recruiting classes that should amount to a team that is superior to an FCS school that was picked in the preseason to finish eighth in the Colonial Athletic Association.
Apparently those players haven’t grown up enough yet.
“Obviously the talent level is different, that’s why they have divisions,” UMass junior linebacker Stanley Andre said. “It’s just so unfortunate that we lost to Maine. They came out and played today. I just don’t think we came out to our best ability.
“They played high-caliber football. Quite frankly I’m impressed.”
UMass seemed to be pretty high up the measuring stick early. The Minutemen burned the Maine defense on four plays for a quick touchdown, but then followed that up by allowing 24 consecutive points.
Did UMass really think the game was in hand that quickly? It sure seemed like it from there.
What was most mind-blowing to me was that the Minutemen were trailing by three points at halftime to a team that had no business hanging around with them, and had no response to start the second half.
UMass looked sluggish, sloppy and appeared to have quit as the game wore on.
“We’re still playing an awful lot of young guys,” Molnar said. “That’s not an excuse, but reality. And young guys have made a lot of mistakes.”
Everyone needs to be held accountable after a loss like this, though. The underclassmen sure showed some immaturity with the way they handled the game, but the veterans were no better. Not only is it their responsibility to keep everyone in check on the field and make plays, but also to keep players focused and not let what should be an easy win slip away from them.
I’m sure the coaching wasn’t immaculate, either.
Once everyone is held accountable, then UMass can hit the reset button and hope the FBS relevancy that it lost on Saturday can be rediscovered. A couple of MAC wins would give that a definite boost.
However, there is no moving on from this game. This one will haunt the minds of UMass fans until the next opportunity presents itself. Unless the Minutemen can pull off a miracle upset over Kansas State next weekend, it’s unlikely that we’ll see another crowd of 15,000-plus in the Gillette Stadium stands on Sept. 21 at noon against Vanderbilt. Those are some all-important attendance figures, too.
Molnar got a first-hand look at the frustration of the fans with this kind of performance.
“Really for the first time I had somebody when I was walking off the field just blistering me coming off, and he’s entitled to it,” Molnar said. “He’s disappointed, and gosh darn so am I.”
Molnar shrugged the instance off as no big deal, but it’s unlikely that comes up in his press conference if it had no effect on him.
The team is probably hurting right now, as it should be. There’s much to be done in order to prove that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
This isn’t a call for anyone’s head. This isn’t the beginning of the end. But it’s a bad loss, and it’s one that can’t be ignored.
Progress has been stalled. The Minutemen failed to separate themselves from a bygone era on Saturday. Fans will just have to be a little more patient than originally expected in order to get the results they were hoping for.
“Every loss is shattering,” Molnar said. “(Saturday was) Maine’s day. Four years from now is irrelevant. The reality is there is no gap between us and Maine. We knew it was going to be close and the talent gap isn’t there.”
Chalk it up as an opportunity lost.
Nick Canelas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @NickCanelas.