FOXBORO — When the pass left A.J. Doyle’s right hand and spiraled across the middle of the field, disaster lurked.
Doyle’s pass from the shotgun to Rob Blanchflower looked like a microcosm of the Massachusetts football team’s season, a potential drive-killing throw which shouldn’t be made in a game ripe for the picking.
Only it wasn’t.
“I wanted it back right away,” Doyle responded when asked about his 47-yard touchdown pass to Blanchflower in the third quarter, which proved to be the game-winning score in UMass’ first victory of the season on Saturday, a 17-10 win over Miami (Ohio) at Gillette Stadium.
“All of a sudden I see (Blanchflower) catch it and running down the field with no one on him and I was just ecstatic.”
What transpired most likely won’t ever be replicated. Doyle’s pass into double coverage ricocheted off Redhawks defender Dayonne Nunley’s outstretched arm and carelessly popped directly up into the air. The ball, suspended in mid-air for what felt like three hours instead of three seconds, came back down. Another Miami defender was a split-second late. Blanchflower was still standing there.
“I think I just gotta thank the man upstairs for that one, it landed right in my bread basket,” Blanchflower said. “I think it was more luck than skill, but luckily I was able to track it.”
It’s undoubtedly been a trying season for a Minuteman football team that’s seen lackluster results on the field and controversy off it.
“I’m just so happy for the team and the University and all our loyal fans who have been here with us for the last few years where we’ve been going up and down,” Blanchflower said.
Blanchflower’s catch-and-run touchdown was one of the first notable bounces which went in the direction of UMass, something coach Charley Molnar acknowledged after the game.
“We need a lot more bounces over the next several games to begin to level things out,” Molnar said. “But I know this: if you play hard and you believe, good things will happen for a football team.”
Those good things came in fortuitous ways for the Minutemen on Saturday.
After starting safety Antoine Tharpe was ejected for targeting a defenseless receiver with 4:59 left in the second quarter, Khary Bailey-Smith took his place. Bailey-Smith promptly intercepted a pass on the same drive, leaping to snare an underthrown pass with his right hand in his own end zone.
Bailey-Smith, who made 10 tackles in the game, recorded his second interception in the fourth quarter, reeling in a timely deflection and returning it 25 yards to the Miami 25-yard line. The play set up an eventual Blake Lucas field goal to push the UMass lead to 17-10.
“It was just well coached,” Bailey-Smith said after the game. “Coach called the right play, I was in the right spot and the ball just happened to come my way.”
Those types of beneficial bounces coupled with sustained pressure defensively allowed UMass to hang around despite a shaky start.
The first time the Minutemen touched the ball – on a Trey Dudley-Giles punt return – a penalty flag negated a 77-yard touchdown run back. On UMass’ first drive into the red zone, Doyle threw an interception at the 1-yard line. The Minutemen trailed 10-7 at one point in the third quarter, and the offense missed several chances to put the game away late.
But UMass, led by Bailey-Smith, held on defensively and bailed out the offense en route to its first victory ever at Gillette Stadium. For a young team with a long way to go, Saturday’s victory offered yet another building block as the Minutemen look to sustain success.
For one day at least, UMass avoided disaster. And it finally got a few bounces along the way.
Mark Chiarelli can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @Mark_Chiarelli.