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A tough start to 2017 for UMass football is met with an even tougher schedule

(Caroline O’Connor/ Daily Collegian)

It has not been an ideal start for the Massachusetts football team.

No game is ever supposed to be considered easy, but given the strength of the Minutemen’s schedule, their first three games against Hawaii, Coastal Carolina and Old Dominion were supposed to be the most winnable.

But instead of the hoped for 1-1 or even 2-0 start to the season, the University of Massachusetts finds itself in all too familiar territory at 0-2.

Following the Minutemen’s home contest with Old Dominion this Saturday, UMass’ only reprieve in the schedule will be its game against Maine on Nov. 11, a Football Championship Subdivision opponent, at Fenway Park. Prior to that, UMass will face two Southeastern Conference teams, No. 25 Tennessee and Mississippi State, and No. 21 South Florida.

The Minutemen’s loss to Hawaii came on another late-game score by the Warriors. Finishing games has long been a problem for UMass, according to head coach Mark Whipple, and neither the offense nor the defense executed well late in the game.

“We’d worked it but we weren’t good on either side,” Whipple said after practice the following week. “We still had 50 seconds and we missed a couple throws and I think we didn’t do a good job handling that. I probably didn’t either. You’re right there and you’re one play away and then you have to reset. We didn’t do a very good job on offense. And then we knew what they were going to run but we just didn’t execute.”

Though the loss to Hawaii came after UMass held a 14-point lead in the second half, the loss to Coastal Carolina may end up being the Minutemen’s most disappointing loss of 2017.

In their first game as a Division I Football Bowl Subdivision team, the Chanticleers held the Minutemen in check, not allowing them to once take the lead.

After limiting the Hawaii backfield to only 95 rushing yards, the Minutemen defensive front had no answer for CCU and its running backs who racked up 253 rushing yards.

Coastal only managed 80 receiving yards but had four rushing touchdowns, two from Osharmar Abercrombie and two from quarterback Dalton Demos, which was enough to defeat UMass.

After being named starting quarterback in week three last year following an injury to Ross Comis, Andrew Ford has remained the primary quarterback for the Minutemen. During the preseason, head coach Mark Whipple mentioned that Comis would be taking some snaps in 2017, to which he has, but in a very limited capacity.

In both games against Hawaii and Coastal Carolina, Comis has seen limited playing time. He completed one of his four passes for 23 yards against the Warriors while rushing for 15 yards. Against CCU, he was 2-4 with 46 passing yards and nine rushing yards.

Tight end Adam Breneman, a redshirt senior, has once again emerged as Ford’s top target. In two games, Breneman already has 305 receiving yards and is averaging 16.9 yards per catch.

Wide receivers Andy Isabella, Sadiq Palmer, Brennon Dingle and true freshman Jessie Britt will also be targets for Ford this season.

Along with Breneman, Isabella quickly became one of Ford’s top targets last season. So far in 2017, the junior wide receiver has had a touchdown in both of the first two games.

The biggest change on the defensive side of the ball from last season has been the addition of Ed Pinkham as defensive coordinator.

Pinkham filled the void left by Tom Masella who was fired following the end of last season. Previously the defensive coordinator at Western Michigan, Pinkham led one of the best defenses in the country last season. The Broncos finished the year 13-1 with an appearance in the Cotton Bowl.

“It’s getting to know the players, getting to know what your strengths are and see if you can take advantage of things that guys do really really well,” Pinkham said of his transition to UMass. “It’s been a great opportunity to start in the spring, we got spring ball under our belts. And then having had fall camp, it’s been a good transition, I think they’re getting to a point where they are mastering what we do and understanding how it all fits hand in glove with other positions.”

The Minutemen showed signs of being a defense that could come through with the clutch stops a few of times in the opening game against Hawaii.

A huge fourth down stand on the UMass 16 yard line with six and a half minutes remaining in the half helped keep the game knotted at seven. UMass ultimately went into halftime tied with the Warriors at 14.

The offense should continue to produce at a high level with premier offensive players in Ford, Breneman, Isabella and Young. The defense, however, will remain the team’s biggest question until it can prove it can right the ship.

Philip Sanzo can be reached at psanzo@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @Philip_Sanzo.

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