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May 4, 2017

UMass football prepares for toughest test of season versus NIU

Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

A season ago, the Massachusetts football team suffered its worst loss of the year at the hands of Northern Illinois, who trounced the Minutemen to the tune of 63-0.

Behind Heisman Trophy hopeful Jordan Lynch, the Huskies wrapped up the game by halftime, leading UMass 35-0. They finished with 610 yards to the Minutemen’s 287. The outcome left a bitter feeling throughout the UMass locker room, something it hopes to change now that No. 17 Northern Illinois (8-0, 4-0 Mid-American Conference) travels east to Gillette Stadium on Saturday.

“If we come out and we believe, I mean we really believe – I’m not talking about that giddy up stuff – we really believe we’re here for a reason and we have a purpose, we can go win this football game,” safety Joe Colton said following Tuesday’s practice.

Colton’s part of a secondary tasked with stopping Lynch yet again. Lynch has thrown for 1,711 yards and 18 touchdowns. He’s added 1,031 yards and eight scores on the ground as well, 137 yards more than the entire Minutemen (1-7, 1-3 MAC) roster. Last week, he caught a touchdown pass too.

“He may be one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the country,” coach Charley Molnar said in his weekly Monday teleconference.

“Beyond the obvious physical skill set that he has, he’s a great runner and above-average passer,” Molnar added. “He really is the brains behind their offense when he is out there on the field. He does it all; he’s the unequivocal leader for their football team.”.

Stopping Lynch will take a disciplined, patient team effort from the entire defense.

“You have to stay disciplined with your eyes and read your keys and be gap sound,” Molnar said. “Whenever guys try to do something, do somebody else’s job against an offense like this, they’ll rip you apart.”

Colton was quick to point out the secondary was ranked near the top of the conference in pass defense – UMass is ranked third – and continuing to improve.

“We have a good secondary,” Colton said. “I think we improved a lot since last year, I think we’re improving every week. I think it’s the strong point of our defense.”

The Huskies boast an impressive all-around attack. Receiver Da’Ron Brown has seven receiving touchdowns on the season and running back Cameron Stingily’s added 726 rushing yards and seven scores.

“For us as a defensive unit, they’re good everywhere,” Colton said. “As good as their quarterback is, they’ve got other guys. It’s not like everyone’s doing good because he’s getting them the ball. The receivers, they get open.

“We gotta play as a unit, we can’t just key on (Lynch), we have to key on everybody. It’s a battle for us. It’s gonna be a battle.”

The Minutemen will also look to build on last week’s 30-point offensive performance, the highest of the season. Against a team as strong as Northern Illinois, capitalizing on opportunities is pivotal.

To do this, the team needs more consistent field goal kicking. Kicker Blake Lucas missed a 22-yard field goal a week ago and the kicking woes factored into Molnar’s decision to go for the two-point conversion at the end of the game. This week, the team turns to Brandon Levengood, who replaces Lucas as the starting kicker.

“You gotta make the kicks that you’re supposed to make in college football,” Molnar said. “Obviously, your PAT’s should be money and really, any kick that’s a 35-yarder or less regardless of hash location, those kicks should be automatic. And unfortunately for us, they haven’t been.”

Quarterback A.J. Doyle is listed as questionable and according to Masslive.com, Mike Wegzyn is in line to start Saturday’s game. It will be his first start since being pulled in Week 2 against Maine.

Masslive.com also reported that running back Jordan Broadnax, linebacker Steve Casali and wide receiver Shakur Nesmith will miss the rest of the season. All three will apply for medical redshirts.

Kickoff is scheduled for noon on Saturday and the game can be seen FOX6 in the Pioneer Valley.

Mark Chiarelli can be reached at mchiarel@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @Mark_Chiarelli.

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