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November 16, 2017

Sanzo: why UMass CAN beat Temple

(Caroline O’Connor/ Daily Collegian)

We’ve talked about it a lot. The Massachusetts football team has been flat out bad in its first three games, resulting in a 0-3 start.

The defense failed to hold a second half two-touchdown lead in the Minutemen’s first game against Hawaii. In their first Football Bowl Subdivision game, Coastal Carolina ran all over the UMass en route to a 38-28 win. And against Old Dominion, a team that put up 36 points against the Minutemen a year ago, the offense stalled from the opening kickoff to the final seconds of the 17-7 defeat.

So that brings us here. UMass in a 0-3 hole to start the season with the most dangerous part of its schedule looming ominously in the future. But before they play the likes of Tennessee, Ohio, South Florida and Mississippi State, the Minutemen travel to Philadelphia to play Temple.

Last time the two met, the Owls edged-out the Minutemen 25-23 on a late field goal at Gillette Stadium in 2015.

Since then, the Owls have been to back-to-back American-Athletic Conference championship games, winning the conference last season, and have appeared in two bowl games.

But in its first two games of 2017, Temple has been scuffling. The Owls dropped their first game to Notre Dame 49-16 and narrowly escaped Villanova, a Football Championship Subdivision team, with a 16-13 victory.

This leaves them with one game against UMass before entering conference play.

The Minutemen have shown signs of life on each side of the ball, just never at the same time. With that said, Temple, a team also struggling to find its way, could be UMass’ last chance to amend its weaknesses.

Here’s why they can do it:

Defense needs to show up, especially the secondary

On Old Dominion’s first play from scrimmage Saturday afternoon, defensive lineman Da’Sean Downey marched into the backfield and welcomed quarterback Blake LaRussa with a sack.

Despite being on the field for a majority of the contest, the Minutemen defense put up its best performance of the season against a team known more for its run game than its pass game.

With the exception of Coastal Carolina – a game in which Downey did not play – the Minutemen have been solid at the line of scrimmage.

Temple’s current situation at running back should bode well for the UMass D-line.

Following the graduation of primary running back Jahad Thomas, a 1,000-plus yard rusher a year ago, the Owls have turned to Ryquell Armstead and David Hood to handle half back duties. Armstead rushed for 919 yards and scored 14 touchdowns last season but has a combined 86 yards in his first two games. Hood, an 87-yard rusher last season, led the Owls in rushing yards against the Wildcats with 21.

Holding the running game would force Temple to turn to their redshirt sophomore quarterback, Logan Marchi. Marchi played in five games in 2016, completing two passes for 29 yards. In his first year as a starter, Marchi has completed 56.5 percent of his passes and thrown for only two touchdowns (both vs. the Fighting Irish).

UMass’ secondary led by cornerback Isaiah Rodgers struggled this season when facing Hawaii, a pass-driven offense.

Quarterback Dru Brown threw for 391 yards and three touchdowns. However, Rodgers picked up an interception, UMass’ only turnover on the season.

Given how the Owls have played in their first two games, Temple should offer a much less threating passing game against Hawaii. If the Minutemen could eliminate the big plays, they should be able to neutralize Marchi and his receivers.

A bounce back offensive performance

If the Minutemen can manage more than seven points against Temple, it would be an improvement from Old Dominion.

Against a top FBS team like Notre Dame, the Owls allowed 606 yards of total offense, including three running backs who rushed for more than 100 yards.

They responded the following week by allowing only 20 rushing yards to Villanova, although that obviously must be taken with a grain of salt, given the large difference in talent.

However, the big key for the Minutemen will be their offensive line. The O-line showed how weak it can be against Old Dominion, allowing eight sacks.

Not only does this put quarterbacks Andrew Ford and Ross Comis in positions to either scramble, quickly force a pass or take the sack, it gives running back Marquis Young little room to show off his speed.

While the offensive line struggles greatly hindered UMass’ play-making capabilities, a banged-up Adam Breneman did not do them any favors either.

Recovering from an ankle injury that he suffered during the Coastal game, Breneman played against ODU but was not nearly as much of threat as he has been.

Having him back healthier should benefit Ford who has completed 21 passes to the tight end, totaling 323 yards.

They need to win

If nothing else, the Minutemen need to win. There is no other way around it. The next, and only, reprieve in their schedule comes on Nov. 11 vs. Maine, an FCS team.

The worst UMass has finished in their five-plus years as an FBS team was 1-11 in 2012 and 2013, its first two years in the FBS.

A loss to Temple could ensure a similar fate.

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

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