UMass football puts win behind to focus on Buffalo
The celebration for the Massachusetts football team’s first win of the season didn’t last long.
Just minutes after the bus departed Gillette Stadium for Amherst following the Minutemen’s 17-10 win over Miami (Ohio) last Saturday, UMass coach Charley Molnar said that most of the team had already passed out after an exhausting afternoon.
“It was loud only for about the first five, eight minutes and then they all fell asleep,” Molnar said. “We work awfully hard during the week, we played awfully hard in the game. They really did zone out in the last hour.”
And after getting that first taste of victory last weekend, the Minutemen (1-5, 1-1 Mid-American Conference) want more. By the team’s meeting on Monday at 2 p.m., the focus shifted to earning their first winning streak in the Football Bowl Subdivision era at Buffalo on Saturday at 3:30 p.m.
“We were just a little quieter, more focused,” Molnar said. “Now they feel there’s a little more pressure to win a second game. They realize now that they can win. We’re capable of winning. Let’s go get another one.”
But the Bulls (4-2, 2-0 MAC) will pose a significantly greater challenge for UMass than the downtrodden Redhawks did.
Buffalo boasts one of the MAC’s strongest defenses, led by two-time all-conference linebacker Khalil Mack. The 6-foot-3, 248-pound senior leads the conference in tackles for a loss (eight) and is tied for second in sacks (six), leaving the Minutemen no choice but to use an extra blocker, likely a tight end such as Rob Blanchflower, to keep him from getting into the backfield and disrupting the offense.
“You have to pick and choose how you handle Khalil,” Molnar said. “If we think we’re gonna put one blocker on him we’ll be sorry at the end of the day, so we’ll have to use some creative methods to try to neutralize Khalil Mack.”
This makes for an especially big challenge for quarterback A.J. Doyle, who is coming off arguably his best outing of the season with 249 passing yards and two touchdowns in his first career win as a starter.
It doesn’t make things any easier for Doyle to be battling an ankle injury, but he “doesn’t see any reason why he wouldn’t be able to” perform at his best, he said. Instead, he’s focused on trying to solve an experienced defense that consists primarily of upperclassmen atop the depth chart.
He said it’s simply a matter of executing and getting his team in position to make plays.
“It’s a different defense than we’ve faced. We faced them last year so we have some film on them as well as their games this year,” Doyle said. “Khalil Mack is a presence we’ll have to pay attention to, but their whole defense is good. They’re all experienced guys, they’ve all played together for a long time so it’s gonna be a challenge.”
UMass led the Bulls 13-0 at halftime and 19-7 late in the third quarter of last year’s meeting, but Buffalo rallied late for a 29-19 win. In that game, the Minutemen got their first look at Buffalo quarterback Joe Licata. The redshirt sophomore has led the Bulls to wins in each of their last three games with a combined 525 passing yards and seven touchdowns.
“He really manages their offense really well,” Molnar said of Licata. “He’s got above-average arm strength, more of a pro-style passer, accurate, quick release and he plays within his system and plays within his own abilities.
“He doesn’t try to make throws that might be too tight of a window for him, too far down the field. He’s just good.”
UMass has watched enough film on Buffalo both from this season and last year’s head-to-head matchup to put Miami in the past. However, Doyle said some players are still excited and their confidence is at an all-time high.
Now it’s just a matter of not getting too satisfied by just one win, the same underwhelming total the Minutemen finished with last year.
“It’s very important,” Doyle said. “We can’t remember what happened against Miami. Now we gotta focus on Buffalo and beating them and getting the second win. We can’t dwell on the fact that we have one win on the season.”
Nick Canelas can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @NickCanelas.