Smalls, Robinson highlight strong defensive performance

By Eli Rosenswaike, Collegian Staff

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Trailing 22-13 early in the fourth quarter, Towson was deep into Massachusetts territory, needing just 24 yards for a touchdown and a two-point deficit. One under-thrown pass and 90 yards later, the ball – and the score – were headed in the other direction.

Towson quarterback Sean Schaefer’s pass was intercepted by UMass defensive back Sean Smalls and returned 90 yards for a touchdown – effectively ending any hope of a Tigers comeback. It put an exclamation point on a huge defensive performance by the Minutemen.

The UMass defense pounced on the Tigers for much of Saturday’s contest, intercepting Schaefer three times and completely shutting down tailback Rasheed McClaude.

The Minutemen entered the game at 2-0, led mostly by their offense – most notably quarterback Liam Coen, tailback Matt Lawrence and wide receiver J.J. Moore. But in this game, it was the defense that produced the victory.

“I was really proud with the way the defense stepped up,” said UMass coach Don Brown. “The offense had been carrying the day for us the first couple of games, so it was the defense’s turn to step up.”

And every player on Brown’s defense had a part in it. While Smalls’ interception will receive much of the attention, Courtney Robinson made a big play of his own. With the Tigers in the red zone down 19-10, Robinson intercepted Schaefer in the end zone – killing any momentum that they had just gained following a Coen turnover.

“Courtney had a big play with [that] interception, and we just came after them all game,” Smalls said. “You just got to buckle up and step up and make plays.”

The Minuteman defense came from all angles and all directions, stifling the ground game and forcing Schaefer to throw under duress. Schaefer was sacked four times and consistently hurried – leading to quick and forced throws that led to turnovers and failed drives.

According to Brown, the Minutemen blitzed over 50 times out of the 77 snaps that the Tigers took – as the defense made a concerted effort to try and limit Schaefer’s effectiveness.

“We made them earn everything,” Brown said. “We made it very difficult for [Schaefer] to throw the ball down the field. And the one thing that you look at is that we did not allow them to run the football at all. And that was important, it made them one-dimensional.”

The Tigers certainly didn’t have that running dimension to their offense in the losing effort. Towson carried the football 33 times for a total of 22 yards – an average of 0.7 yards per carry. McClaude ran for just 39 yards on 16 carries, with his longest being for nine yards. Towson only recorded five rushing first downs.

That’s not all that went wrong for the Towson offense, either. The Tigers went 0-for-4 on fourth-down conversions, and were tackled behind the line of scrimmage nine times (by eight different Minuteman defenders) for a total loss of 40 yards.

The plays that stood out, though, came on special teams – as they frequently have so far in 2007 for the Minutemen. When the Tigers look at the game tape, three plays in particular would draw the ire of any special teams coordinator.

With the game tied 10-10 in the first quarter, long snapper Joe McNamara sailed the snap over the head of punter Bill Shears into the back of the end zone, resulting in a safety and a 12-10 UMass lead.

Shears’s rough day continued in the third, when he mishandled the snap and was tackled for a 13-yard loss – giving the Minutemen great field position. They capitalized with a field goal, extending the lead to two scores.

Towson place-kicker Mark Bencivengo probably won’t want to watch the game film, either. Trailing 12-10 early in the second quarter after the safety, Bencivengo set up for a 34-yard field goal to take the lead, but UMass safety Michael Meggett busted through and blocked the kick, sending the attempt backwards and out-of-bounds.

The Minutemen marched right down the field after the blocked kick, scoring on a sensational touchdown reception by wide receiver Rasheed Rancher on a 35-yard strike from Coen.

Bencivengo connected on a 30-yard field goal for the game’s next score, but that proved to be the last for the Tigers.

Eli Rosenswaike can be reached at [email protected]