FOXBORO – For a moment, it looked like the Massachusetts football team was a mere extra point away from tying up Western Michigan with only 22 seconds remaining in the game.
But that’s when everything changed.
UMass coach Charley Molnar elected to try a two-point conversion instead, which was unsuccessful when quarterback A.J. Doyle overthrew a ball intended for Elgin Long in the back of the end zone. And with that overthrown ball went the Minutemen’s chance to pick up a second win, eventually falling 31-30 on its annual homecoming game to a previously winless Broncos squad in front of an announced crowd of 20,571 at Gillette Stadium.
The pivotal moment in the game came after UMass (1-7, 1-3 Mid-American Conference) moved the ball downfield on a 13-play, 68-yard touchdown drive in four minutes, 33 seconds, which culminated with a Lorenzo Woodley 2-yard run into the end zone.
Then instead of sending out kicker Blake Lucas, who had missed two field goals on the night, including a 22-yard attempt that would’ve given UMass a 27-24 lead at the time, Molnar sent his offense back onto the field. In the end, Molnar elected to go for two due to the struggles in the kicking game throughout the afternoon.
“That was obviously my decision,” he said. “It was something that we were talking about literally from the beginning of the second half, right down to the final moments of the game.
“We just felt like if we went into an overtime situation, we would get potentially into a kicking battle and obviously our kicking game isn’t the best at this moment in time and felt like we could put the ball in the hands of our best players, guys who have made plays for us not only today, but consistently through the season.”
While the pass was thrown toward Long, the play was originally intended to go to someone else.
“The first option was to get the ball to Tajae (Sharpe),” Molnar said, “who came across fast to the strong flat. He was matched and Elgin came over the top, Elgin Long, and he was at least from our perspective, he was open at least for a moment. I don’t know if the quarterback had somebody in between him and the receiver that he had to put too much air under the ball or it was just an overthrow.”
UMass was in the position of having to march down the field at the end of the game due to a quick 3-play, 53-yard touchdown drive for Western Michigan (1-8, 1-4 MAC), which ended on a 54-yard strike from quarterback Zach Terrell (23-of-36 for 275 yards and four touchdowns) to Corey Davis (154 yards on 10 receptions and two touchdowns). The Minutemen brought pressure on the play, leaving Davis in single coverage, and once he beat his initial man, he waltzed into the end zone, taking the lead for the Broncos for good.
That was only the second time all night that Western Michigan took the lead. It also led 24-21 in the third quarter after another touchdown strike from Terrell to Davis. But the Minutemen responded with a 37-yard field goal from Lucas to tie the game heading into the final quarter.
For most of the first half, though, UMass was the team in control. The Minutemen had a 21-17 lead at the half after touchdown strikes from Doyle (15-of 24 for 194 yards and one touchdown), who found tight end Rob Blanchflower (131 yards on seven receptions and a touchdown) for a 6-yard score, Jamal Wilson on a 3-yard run and Khary Bailey Smith, who returned the opening kickoff 90 yards to the end zone.
“I think we changed some things up, which is very good for us,” Doyle said. “Obviously it showed with the amount of points we were able to put on the board today.”
Despite the offensive success for UMass early, the Broncos stayed with its opponent thanks to two touchdown throws from Terrell in the second quarter and a field goal from Andrew Haldeman in the first.
But the offensive success in the first half wasn’t enough, and the loss was tough, especially for Blanchflower, who as a senior ended his career winless on homecoming games.
“It hurts a lot,” he said. “I think when your fifth season, haven’t won a homecoming game yet. So I really wanted this one. If I was calling the plays, I would’ve went for two, too, because the amount of energy we had as an offense and the way we were moving the ball, it was in the cards for us.
“I didn’t have a doubt in my mind all day that we were gonna win the game. It just didn’t turn out that way.”
The Minutemen will have to bounce back against a very tough opponent in No. 18 Northern Illinois next Saturday at Gillette Stadium.
Cameron McDonough can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @Cam_McDonough.