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Aside from a new system, Ed Pinkham brings a change in culture to UMass football defense

(Thom Kendall/ UMass Athletics)

The Massachusetts football team is no stranger to late game drama – usually at the peril of the Minutemen.

So when the University of Massachusetts’ defense let up a 56-yard passing touchdown to Hawaii inside five minutes of the fourth quarter to close out the 2016 season, it became – at the time – just the latest disappointing loss in a season that already had nine of them.

That would mark the end of Tom Masella’s tenure as UMass defensive coordinator; shortly after would mark the beginning of Ed Pinkham’s tutelage.

Backed by Pinkham’s defense that was ranked No. 15 in scoring defense, Western Michigan finished its 2016 regular season 13-0 along with a trip to the Cotton Bowl – one of the best bowl games a college football team can play in at the end of the season.

Two weeks into the 2017 season, the Minutemen once again find themselves in a rut. Sitting at 0-2 with a formidable schedule ahead, another two or three-win season grows increasingly more likely.

But Pinkham has been here before. In his first season with Western Michigan in 2013, the Broncos finished 1-11. Three years later, they were undefeated and in one of the premier postseason games.

The transition

In a schedule that features Southeastern Conference foes Tennessee and Mississippi State, along with formidable mid-major clubs like Appalachian State and South Florida, the Minutemen’s opening three games against Hawaii, Coastal Carolina and Old Dominion were the type of games that needed to be won.

UMass could not pull it off, falling to Hawaii in the final minutes of the season opener 38-35, and even worse, losing to CCU on the road the following week in the team’s first game in the bowl subdivision by 10 points, 38-28.

With Hawaii in town for week zero, it appeared that UMass had a chance to go 1-0. However, another fourth quarter debacle that saw a 14-point UMass lead evaporate killed any hope of that.

But according to coach Pinkham, there was still a silver lining.

Hawaii, a bowl team last season, managed only 112 rushing yards – 56 less than its contest against UMass a season ago. The Minutemen defensive line held the Warriors’ premier running back Diocemy Saint Juste to just 80.

“Normally when you hold a team to 100 yards rushing you have a 90 percent chance of winning,” Pinkham said. “And I think that they had 112 or 115 yards of rushing and 30 of it comes on a quarterback scramble.”

Two first-half fourth down stops, one on the UMass 16-yard-line, an Isaiah Rodgers interception and five sacks highlighted the Minutemen’s defensive performance.

“When you look what our guys did when they executed things properly, you can show them the left side of the screen and the right side of the screen and no one can beat you when you’re on the left side of screen and it wasn’t because you got any faster or smarter on those plays, you just did what you’re supposed to do,” Pinkham said. “On these plays you’re the same guy with the same speed and same strength, but you made mental mistakes. So what we have to do is cultivate these guys and eliminate these guys. When you see the video I think it becomes crystal clear.”

Pinkham compared learning a new defensive system to learning a new language. Fortunately, he could be with the team in the spring and in time for the spring game. However, miscommunication still finds its way to the field on game day.

Though far from a novice coach, Pinkham can only do so much from the sideline. Having a core group of seniors to help guide the transition is, as Pinkham puts it, “invaluable.”

“I think he’s got another year to go, yet, but a guy like [Bryton] Barr has been really really good,” Pinkham said. “Steve [Casali] has been really really good. Jesse Monteiro, those guys have bought in. They understand what it takes to win and they bought in and we talk about our culture and those guys have all bought in to the culture and what it is we’re trying to do and how we think we have to get there and what the important ingredients are to get there.”

Casali, a redshirt senior linebacker, believes Pinkham’s best attributes are his patience and his teaching ability. The two have to go hand-in-hand when teaching a new system, having a strong leadership presence can only help.

“Me, Bryton and Shane [Huber] – we definitely have the younger guys underneath our wing and we help them out a lot,” Casali said. “Like coach Pinkham, we don’t have as many years of experience obviously, but each of us have five years of college football. So us having that we can definitely teach the younger guys to make the game that much more simple for them.”

Going up by 14 points in the second half vs. Hawaii and then proceeding to let that lead slip away epitomizes UMass football’s FBS experience. The addition of coach Pinkham could not only add a fundamental change, but a cultural one, too.

Learning how to win and how to not lose

In the last five years, UMass has labored to make its football program as attractive for recruits as possible.

An updated stadium, a brand new performing complex, a new press box, competitive opponents, etc. However, the one thing – and biggest thing – that still eludes UMass is winning.

The Minutemen are a combined 11-52 since making the jump to the FBS in 2012.

In its first two games, UMass found itself losing when the matchup suggests it should have won. According to Pinkham “to avoid losing is to stop making critical mistakes.”

“There is a thing that they say, you have to avoid losing before you think about winning,” Pinkham said. “We stopped [Hawaii] a couple of times on third down, we should be off the field yet we spear the quarterback in the red zone. You’re putting the ball on a tee and giving the guy a fourth strike when you do something like that and you can’t do that. When you’re learning how to win, it’s hard to overcome those things.

“You point it out over and over again. You have to sell it. And the one thing when you’re selling whatever your culture is, success leads to people buying into the culture. People buying into what it is you’re proposing.”

Pinkham knows this is not a one-year task. With over 30 years of coaching experience and having been a part of Western Michigan’s recent rebuild, Pinkham is familiar with the process.

According to the defensive coordinator there are steps to building a bowl caliber team and it starts with recruiting.

“I can tell you that looking at a place like Western Michigan, how did it go from whatever it was, we were 1-11 to 13-0 and going to the Cotton Bowl, it was through recruiting,” Pinkham said. “Every year we had the number one recruiting class in the MAC (Mid-American Conference) and usually it was better than half of the Big 10. People always say in the coaching profession that great players will make you a great coach so you really have to develop that as you go along in addition to your system, whatever your system may be.”

It ultimately comes down to the players.

“It’s a player’s game, as coach Pinkham says, so it’s on us,” Casali said. “It’s on the seniors and all the older guys, we decide where this defense goes.”

By joining UMass, Pinkham is giving up a defense that helped win 13 games for one that only won two. Though the talent gap is wide, Pinkham does not look at it as a disadvantage or a downgrade. He anticipates the process, the development. It’s what he loves about his job.

“It’s part of what I enjoy doing – building programs,” Pinkham said. “I don’t look at it that way, like it’s harder to coach this group than that group. I look at it as this is the first step of development in what I think we can build to achieve the same results that we achieved at a place like Colgate or a place like Western Michigan.”

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

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