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UMass football looking to regain focus against No. 19 Toledo

Alec Zabrecky/Daily Collegian

Alec Zabrecky/Daily Collegian

Massachusetts football coach Mark Whipple admitted the Minutemen may not have shown full focus in the recent weeks of their 1-5 start in 2015.

Citing the aura surrounding its trip to Notre Dame Sept. 26 (resulting in a 62-27 loss) and the most recent homecoming weekend (a 15-10 loss to Kent State), Whipple said Wednesday that UMass has had its fair share of distractions.

“I think there’s been some distractions and we haven’t been totally focused since the Temple game,” Whipple said. “They have to focus on this (Saturday), and when they do that, we’re a good team.”

However, with their next matchup coming Saturday against No. 19 Toledo (6-0, 3-0 Mid-American Conference), the Minutemen will have to fully regain their focus in their attempt to turn around a disappointing season at the midway point.

“I think we came out (Tuesday) for practice and everybody was onto Toledo,” UMass linebacker Shane Huber said. “This is a game you circle on your calendar, getting to knock off the No. 19 team in the country and turn your season around. It’s a great opportunity to erase all the losses and deficits that we’ve had this season.”

The Rockets enter Saturday’s matchup at Gillette Stadium with one of the conference’s top offenses, averaging 34.7 points per game and 446.2 yards per game.

Leading Toledo’s attack is a strong running game, which tops the conference with 204.5 rushing yards per game behind a three-headed attack of Terry Swanson (four touchdowns), Damion Jones-Moore (five touchdowns) and Kareem Hunt (three touchdowns.

Hunt, a junior, is the reigning MAC player of the year. The tailback returned from a two-game suspension to begin the season for violation of team rules to rush for 86.3 yards per game in his three games of action.

In last year’s matchup, Hunt led Toledo to a 42-35 shootout victory over UMass with 198 of the Rockets’ 304 total yards on the ground. After Wednesday’s practice, Whipple said stopping Hunt is one of the Minutemen’s top priorities this weekend.

“Swanson was really good against us last year and Kareem Hunt was voted the best player in the MAC and I don’t disagree with it,” Whipple said. “He’s getting his carries and he’s part of the reason why they’re the No. 19 team in the country.”

Huber added that filling the running lanes as a front seven unit will be key in stopping not only Hunt, but Toledo’s additional threats in the deep running back unit.

“They’ve had a stable of running backs,” Huber said. “In order for us to play well, we just have to know the matchups and know who we’re going against. We don’t need to do anything extra, it’s all about filling our gaps and executing our assignments.”

Huber said early practices this week have seen a large amount of energy from the defense in gang-tackling exercises and other drills. He said that sure tackling and winning the turnover battle will be key in Saturday’s game.

Through six games, UMass is tied for 10th in the MAC in turnover margin.

“We’ve done a good job of forcing points and stopping teams on fourth down. But I think the turnover battle – interceptions, forcing fumbles, strip sacks – is something we can definitely work on,” Huber said.

“It gives you sparks of momentum and can change the game,” Whipple added about the importance of turnovers. “(Toledo) has had the tendency to roll the ball back some so we’ll just work toward that. We’re working on it. They come in bunches, so hopefully it’s this week.”

Saturday’s kickoff is set for 3 p.m. It will be UMass’ first game at Gillette Stadium since Sept. 19 against Temple.

Anthony Chiusano can be reached at achiusano@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @a_chiusano24.

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