Up and down day for special teams units

By Eli Rosenswaike, Collegian Staff

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There was nothing “special” about the 40-30 victory for the Massachusetts football team on Saturday over Holy Cross. Except for the action on special teams, that is.

After all, the No. 3 Minutemen were expected to handle the Crusaders rather easily in their season opener.

But that was far from the case. A single score separated the two teams after a Holy Cross touchdown pass with under nine minutes remaining – bringing the Crusaders to within seven at 37-30.

The Minutemen fittingly put the kibosh on any miracle Crusader comeback on special teams, as place-kicker Chris Koepplin nailed a 37-yard field goal to extend UMass’s lead to 10 lead with 3:37 remaining. That would prove to be the final score of the game.

Koepplin also delivered the first score in the game – a 48-yard bomb that easily cleared the crossbar and tied his career-best. That kick also tied for the third-longest in team history, and set the tone for a game where seemingly every play on special teams was an adventure.

After teams traded touchdown runs, UMass kick returner Courtney Robinson did a little running of his own – scampering 100 yards down the field for the first kickoff return touchdown in 25 years for the Minutemen.

“It was fun,” Robinson said, with a grin. “I just knew if it came to me I was going to have an opportunity to return it. The outside was open and I took it, and I scored.”

The last kickoff return touchdown for UMass came all the way back in 1982, when Richard Jenkins took one back against Maine for 97 yards.

Robinson’s return tied for the third-longest in school history, and gave the Minutemen a 10-point cushion. It was a lead that they extended just minutes later – on a Liam Coen touchdown pass – a lead that they would never relinquish.

The recipient of that touchdown pass was red-shirt sophomore wideout Joe Sanford, increasing the lead to 23-7. Interestingly enough, a pass followed on the very next play – as the snap on the extra point went awry. Koepplin was forced to throw the ball in a desperate attempt to convert. The pass fell to the ground and the score remained at 23-7.

After starting the game off so well on special teams (Robinson’s return and Koepplin’s kick) the failed PAT was a symbol of things to come for the UMass special teams unit.

Trailing by 16, Holy Cross could now technically tie the game with two scores – a pair of touchdowns with two point conversions – but it made things much easier on itself after recording a safety to cut the lead to the “traditional” two-touchdown deficit of 14.

It wasn’t your garden-variety safety, either. It wasn’t a quarterback sack or a stuffed run deep in UMass territory – but rather a snap that sailed over the head of punter Brett Arnold, forcing the junior to send the ball through the back of the end zone for the safety.

Although not exactly what Arnold had in mind for his first career punt at UMass, the junior college transfer had a nice debut – finishing with six punts for a 44.3 yard average, including a 65-yard punt in the fourth quarter.

“I thought Arnold did a good job,” UMass coach Don Brown said. “He’s got to quicken it up a little bit, but other than that I thought he did a very nice job in his first game.”

Following the safety, Arnold was called upon to punt the ball again – this time on the free kick. On another sign of things to come, Holy Cross’s Ryan McGuire muffed the kick, fumbling the ball into the hands of UMass safety Jeromy Miles.

It may have been the first fumble of the game, but it certainly wasn’t the last.

UMass would muff a kick of their own just three minutes later, as receiver/punt returner J.J. Moore coughed up the football after he signaled for a fair catch in Minuteman territory.

It was a rare fumble for Moore, who finished the 2006 season as an Atlantic-10 All-Conference Third Team punt returner.

Already in the Top-10 in school history in both receiving yards and receptions, Moore had a career-day on offense – exploding for 163 yards and a touchdown on nine receptions. But his day on special teams was a career-worst, as the senior captain fumbled another punt in the third quarter and finish with -3 yards on three returns.

Holy Cross stalled on offense after Moore’s first fumble, but the Crusaders needed just one play to capitalize on his second miscue – scoring immediately on a 23-yard strike from quarterback Dominic Randolph to receiver Justin Maher. The drive took all of eight seconds and cut the UMass lead to 37-23.

Holy Cross would add a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter to make things interesting, but Koepplin’s second field goal put the game away for good.

“I thought Koepplin did a really solid job,” Brown said. “The one off the right hash, late in the game, with a lot of pressure on that kick certainly took the pressure off us a little bit. That was a huge, huge play in this particular game and I couldn’t be anymore happy with him.”

Although plays on special teams gave UMass its initial lead and ultimately put the game away, it’s also special teams that will need work if the Minutemen hope to end up where they did last year.

“There are a lot of things to correct,” UMass coach Don Brown said, discussing his team’s mistakes. “I have to do a better job of coaching and the players have to do a better job of playing – but the reality of it is that we can do that at 1-0.”

Although bothered by his team’s many mistakes, Brown knows that much of it can be attributed to early-season rust.

“Obviously crazy things happen in an opener, and we certainly had our share today,” he said.

That opening quote from Brown at the postgame press conference was referring to the game itself, but it’s certainly applicable to Saturday’s action on special teams, too.

Eli Rosenswaike can be reached at [email protected]