Last year’s matchup against Western Michigan was a low point for the Massachusetts football team’s defense.
The Broncos ran all over the Minutemen’s defense for 551 total yards, 283 of which came through the air, while also gaining 268 yards on the ground en route to a 52-14 blowout victory.
But that game was just over a year ago, and the UMass defense has made great strides since then. With that loss still in the back of its mind, the defense is looking forward to the challenge that awaits it on Saturday, according to coach Charley Molnar.
“Well our defense is just a year better, that’s all I can tell you,” Molnar said. “It has nothing to do with their offense, it’s just the fact that again we’re taking care of the University of Massachusetts. We have better depth and we have more physical maturity on our defense than we did a year ago and I think that’s the big difference. And we have better leadership, absolutely better leadership this year than we did a year ago.”
Those improvements continued against Buffalo last weekend despite the final score. The Minutemen lost 32-3, but the Bulls didn’t reach the end zone on offense until the fourth quarter. Defensive back Joe Colton has also seen the improvement on the field from where they were last year to now.
“Not just last weekend, I think from last year it’s just a huge improvement from our defense,” Colton said. “I mean last year when you saw some games like Indiana, UConn, Michigan, the scores were a lot higher than they are now. And our defense, we’re making a lot of teams go three and out. We’re giving our offense plenty of time to rest and get down the field and then we’re making them go three and out once they get down the field. Not only are the scores improving, but our maturity definitely has improved.”
Colton noticed that the defensive backs have especially stepped up as of late.
“Eduardo Cruz stepped up during the Miami (Ohio) game,” he said. “Antoine Tharpe, he stepped up this year, he was a corner last year and right now he’s playing nickel back and he’s playing safety. He’s stepped up. Jaurice Jones … he’s stepping up.
“Both our corners (Randall) Jette and Trey (Dudley-Giles) and D’Metrius (Williams) get out there. I mean coach Burns says you’ve got to find a way for D’Metrius to play more. I think it’s the whole secondary if you ask me. Devin Brown, he wasn’t a safety last year. He came out of nowhere. He was special teams and corner last year and now he’s every play, every down safety for us. He’s our leader back there.”
Another thing that has been going in the defense’s favor lately is its depth.
The season has been filled with players missing time due to injury, but on Monday, defensive lineman Daniel Maynes was one of only a handful of players listed on the team’s injury report. His injury was undisclosed, and he was held out of practice on Monday as a result.
So as far as health goes, Molnar is feeling good about where his defense currently is this late into the season.
“We’re about as healthy as you would expect for this time of year,” he said. “It’s not the same 11 guys that we would necessarily, if we could pick our top 11, I don’t know if every one of those guys would be out there, but we’re pretty close. For this time of year I have absolutely no complaints with our defensive depth.”
Cameron McDonough can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @Cam_McDonough.