FOXBORO – There are two ways to look at the Massachusetts football team’s 24-7 loss to Vanderbilt on Saturday; either glass half empty or glass half full.
The glass half empty pessimist will mention that the Minutemen are 0-4 this season, including blowout defeats against Kansas State and Wisconsin and a loss to Football Championship Subdivision member Maine. They will also mention how the team is now 0-9 at Gillette Stadium, and some might even say that they shouldn’t be playing football with the big boys in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
The glass half full optimist will admit that UMass is now 0-4 and winless in its history in Foxboro, but they also have the clear eyes to look beyond the scoreboard, which is imperative when dealing with a young and inexperienced team in only their second season in the FBS. They will also mention that the Minutemen played their best game of the season against Commodores, albeit for only three quarters.
UMass did indeed look like a much-improved team against Vanderbilt on both offense and defense before the game got away from it in the fourth quarter.
A.J. Doyle looked comfortable in the pocket in his second straight game at starting quarterback after taking over for Mike Wegzyn. Doyle finished 20-of-28 throwing the ball with one touchdown and no interceptions. He did only amass 133 yards through the air, as he was primarily throwing short passes to Tajae Sharpe and Rob Blanchflower, who played in his first game since last season on Saturday.
His longest pass was only 10 yards, but he effectively saw what the Commodore’s defense was giving him and exploited it. He was also effective with his legs when he couldn’t find an open receiver. Instead of spending too much time in the pocket, he led the Minutemen with 29 yards on the ground.
On UMass’ only touchdown drive of the day, he led the offense down the field for its longest scoring drive of the season on a 14-play, 75-yard drive, which lasted 6 minutes, 23 seconds. He went 6-of-7 for 33 yards on the drive, including a 4-yard touchdown pass to Sharpe, which knotted the game up early in the second quarter. He also ran for 15 yards on the drive and was aided by solid running by Lorenzo Woodley and Stacey Bedell and a pass interference penalty by the Commodores.
If that Doyle shows up in Mid-American Conference play, and if he is helped by a more consistent running game, this offense could have some successful afternoons in October and November.
But perhaps the most encouraging thing for the Minutemen after Saturday was the play of the defense. UMass held a Southeastern Conference team, which won nine games, including a win in the Music City Bowl, last season, to 239 total yards and 10 points through three quarters.
The most significant achievement for the defense was holding Vanderbilt to 166 total yards on the ground after allowing an NCAA worst 323 rushing yards per game through its first three contests. The defense also kept the Commodores’ leading receiver Jordan Matthews at bay for most of the game before he scored a highlight-reel touchdown after he caught the ball on one side of the field and proceeded to run across the entire field, making multiple defenders miss and leaping into the end zone.
By the time that Matthews scored, though, the defense was clearly gassed after trying to keep Vanderbilt at bay for so long. The defense was also not getting much help from the offense, which despite its clear improvements, only managed to give the defense seven points to work with.
The Minutemen had multiple opportunities to put more than seven points on the board, but in what has been a recurring theme with this team, they couldn’t turn them into scoring drives, putting more pressure on the defense. UMass made it inside the Commodores 40-yard line three more times after the touchdown drive, but came up empty, including a missed field goal by Blake Lucas as time expired in the first half.
It would be unfair not to mention the multiple injuries that the Minutemen had to overcome. The most significant of those injuries came when Doyle limped off the field with an apparent leg injury after he was hit on one of his scrambles in the third quarter. He was replaced by Wegzyn, who played well in relief, but once Doyle returned, the offense never seemed to get back in sync like it was in the first half. The offense was also without Woodley and Bedell at times in the backfield, and the defense was without defensive back Joey Colton in the secondary due to injuries. It’s hard enough to beat an SEC team with all of your players on the field after all.
So the bottom line is that UMass played one heck of a football game on Saturday, especially for three quarters. They were effective on offense, especially on its longest scoring drive of the season. Doyle played well for a second straight game despite his injury, and he looks to have cemented his role as starting quarterback going forward. And the defense played well, especially against the run. If the Minutemen didn’t catch the injury bug, they might have even been able to make the game closer than it was in the end.
But the offense still needs to work on converting on its opportunities, which will not only put some more points on the board, but also help out the defense.
So UMass may have lost on Saturday, but the real losers are those who see the glass half empty. There’s nothing but optimism surrounding this game for the Minutemen.
Cameron McDonough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on twitter @Cam_McDonough.