FOXBORO – Call it gutsy. Call it foolish. Either way, Massachusetts football coach Charley Molnar made the big decision.
With 22 seconds left to play and the Minutemen an extra point away from tying the game, Molnar called for a two-point conversion to go for the win instead of the conservative approach to take the easy point and force overtime.
Quarterback A.J. Doyle took the snap out of the shotgun and rolled to the right. His first option was Tajae Sharpe going across to the flat, but he wasn’t open. The sophomore instead targeted Elgin Long in the back of the end zone, but he overthrew his receiver and Western Michigan walked off the Gillette Stadium turf 31-30 winners on Saturday.
“It’s a play we’ve been practicing all year long,” Doyle said. “We haven’t run it, but we (ran) it a lot in practice. They played it the way we expected to, I just threw a bad ball. I put that on me.”
The controversial decision to go for it certainly cost UMass the game, but it wasn’t something that Molnar regrets.
The second-year coach said in his postgame press conference that his decision to go for the two-point conversion came down to his lack of confidence in kicker Blake Lucas. Lucas had gone 1-for-3 for the game and his last attempt was a missed 22-yard field goal in the fourth quarter that would have given UMass a 27-24 lead at the time.
Molnar felt that if the game had gone into overtime, it may have come down to a battle between kickers, something he wasn’t ready to risk at that point in the game.
“We just felt like if we went into an overtime situation, we would get potentially into a kicking battle,” Molnar said. “Obviously our kicking game isn’t the best at this moment in time, and we felt like we could put the ball in the hands of our best players, guys who have not only made plays for us (Saturday), but consistently through the season.”
Molnar said it was a decision that he and the coaching staff had discussed throughout the second half, and once Lucas had missed the 22-yard chip shot, there was no question the Minutemen were going for the win.
“I just felt, ‘Why put the ball on the foot of a guy who, the last time he was out there on the field, was unsuccessful?’” Molnar said. “I knew we could make the PAT. That wasn’t the issue. It’s just when you get into overtime a lot of times it comes down to field goals.”
Senior tight end and captain Rob Blanchflower agreed with the decision to go for the win, saying, “If I was calling the plays I would’ve gone for two too.” However, he also would’ve trusted Lucas, if it came down to it in overtime, using the windy conditions as a potential factor in his struggles on Saturday.
“I don’t know what happened there,” Blanchflower said. “He hits them all the time in practice. We love Blake. We trust him. It was an extremely windy day going from right to left so you can’t put all the blame on a guy like that in these conditions.”
The wind can’t be an excuse for Lucas’ season-long struggles, though. The sophomore has made just three of his 10 field goal attempts this season, with Saturday’s miss from 22 yards out in the fourth quarter being by far the most costly.
Given Lucas’ poor results and Molnar’s apparent lack of confidence in him, a kicking competition may be opening between him and senior Brendon Levengood, who has been used primarily for kickoffs this season, in practice.
Levengood hasn’t attempted a field goal all season, and Molnar wouldn’t say whether or not he will be at any point this season.
When asked if Levengood would be his kicker next week, Molnar said, “It’d be easy for me to say that right now, emotionally, but we’ll go back and we’ll look at those guys again. We’ve had lots of competition over the last several weeks and at the end Blake keeps coming out ahead.”
Molnar may have had the right intentions. But the decision may be one that keeps him up at night, and could spark some changes to the UMass lineup in the near future.
Nick Canelas can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @NickCanelas.