After its loss to Maine on Sept. 7, the chances of the Massachusetts football team winning multiple games this season looked slim.
The Minutemen were defeated on their home field by a Football Championship Subdivision opponent, and the four calendar weeks that followed made for an even bleaker outlook for the program.
Suddenly, UMass is expected to win a football game for the second time in 2013 when it hosts winless Western Michigan as a three-point favorite in its annual homecoming game at 3 p.m. Saturday at Gillette Stadium.
The Minutemen (1-6, 1-2 Mid-American Conference) capitalized on their first game as favorites since joining the Football Bowl Subdivision when they beat a downtrodden Miami (Ohio) squad 17-10 at Gillette on Oct. 12.
It marked UMass’ first-ever win at its new home stadium. Now it returns home for the first time since that win with a prime opportunity to make it two straight at home and two wins in the last three games.
“We’re really excited about it,” senior safety Devin Brown said. “Last time we played at home we got a win and it felt really good. We’re hoping to repeat that success and give the fans something to come back to.”
The Minutemen are coming off one of their ugliest losses of the season when Buffalo downed them in a sloppy 32-3 loss at a rain-soaked UB Stadium.
It was a particularly tough day for the UMass offense, which was kept out of the end zone for just the second time this season. The offense also allowed the Bulls defense to score when linebacker Khalil Mack intercepted a pass by quarterback A.J. Doyle in the second quarter and returned it 35 yards for a touchdown.
That was one of many lowlights in a tough day for Doyle, who threw for just 162 yards and was sacked three times. It wasn’t much better on the ground, either, as running back Jamal Wilson was held to just 51 rushing yards after exceeding the century mark the previous two games.
But if there is any way for UMass to exploit the injury-depleted Broncos (0-8, 0-4 MAC) defense, it’s by running the football. Western Michigan, which is led by first-year coach P.J. Fleck, is ranked last in the MAC in rushing defense, allowing an average of 259.8 yards per game and 5.5 yards per carry, something that has the UMass backfield itching for an opportunity for a breakout game.
“We’re trying to find any way to give us an advantage and get points,” Wilson said. “But most of all we’re just trying to come out, play our game and find a way to get it done.”
The Minutemen’s defense, on the other hand, will get their first look at Broncos redshirt freshman quarterback Zach Terrell.
In UMass’ 52-14 blowout loss to Western Michigan last season, the Minutemen were torched by quarterback Tyler Van Tubbergen’s six touchdown – five passing, one rushing – performance. But Van Tubbergen, now a senior, has battled injuries and hasn’t played since Terrell replaced him in a 47-20 loss to Toledo on Oct. 5.
Terrell hasn’t been much of an improvement, either, throwing for just 696 yards, three touchdowns and six interceptions while completing just 51.3 percent of his passes. But UMass doesn’t expect anything different going up against a quarterback it hasn’t seen before.
“We had a really good week of practice, the guys are in a good place,” UMass coach Charley Molnar said. “It doesn’t really matter who the quarterback for Western Michigan is. We just have to take care of UMass right now.”
The Broncos have clearly struggled this season, in part due to injury. As a result, Western Michigan has started 23 freshmen this season, so their inexperience is something UMass can relate to.
“(Injuries) are part of the game,” Molnar said. “So it’s our job as coaches and players to overcome those injuries. That’s why it’s a team game. It’s not just your best 11 guys. It’s your depth, it’s your backups, who’s ready to play.”
Regardless of what the statistics say, the Minutemen still remember last year’s beatdown at the hands of the Broncos and have no intentions of taking them lightly.
“We thought they were one of the most talented teams in the MAC last year so our guys remember how good they were,” Molnar said. “Our guys keep talking about, ‘Wow, I remember how tough those guys were a year ago.’ We probably weren’t as mentally prepared as we probably should’ve been to take on this challenge, so I know we will be this time.”
Brown echoed his coach’s sentiments, and is ready to avenge last year’s lopsided defeat.
“Last year we went down there and they beat us badly,” Brown said. “The game wasn’t close. I think everybody remembers what happened. Not to take away from what they’ve done this year, but we know what they’re capable of from what they did last year.”
Nick Canelas can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @NickCanelas.