Statistics misleading for Lawrence, offense

By Eli Rosenswaike, Collegian Staff

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Opponents of the Massachusetts football team gain more first downs, commit far fewer penalties and often lead in time of possession.

But when the final whistle blows and the fans head for the exits, they don’t often have more points on the scoreboard.

That trend remained unchanged Saturday between the Minutemen (6-1, 4-0 Colonial Athletic Association) and Northeastern at McGuirk Stadium. When looking through the final statistics, one wouldn’t expect such a one-sided affair.

But the Maroon and White dominated the scoreboard, winning the game 24-7, despite putting up similar offensive numbers to the Huskies. Northeastern had 22 first downs to UMass’s 24 and were only outgained by 67 yards in total offense (315 to 382). The Minutemen also committed 10 penalties for 102 yards, but easily prevailed.

But the most important stat in Saturday’s tilt was turnovers. Northeastern (1-6, 0-4 CAA) turned the ball over five times (three fumbles, two interceptions) despite entering the game with three turnovers all season.

But it’s one thing to create a turnover, it’s another to capitalize on it. The Minutemen won that game because they took full advantage of NU mistakes.

UMass scored its first touchdown of the afternoon following a poor snap that resulted in a 17-yard punt by the Huskies. Liam Coen led the offense 57 yards down the field in eight plays, giving them the 7-0 lead.

On the second drive for the Huskies, quarterback Anthony Orio fumbled on a 13-yard scramble and the UMass offense took over from its own 29-yard line.

Coen and the Minutemen capitalized again, driving 71 yards for their second touchdown of the first quarter; two Huskies mistakes, two UMass touchdowns and a 14-0 lead.

It happened again early in the second quarter, this time on a botched exchange from Orio and center Tyler Perkins. Again without good field position, the Minutemen marched 76 yards for a touchdown, giving them a commanding 21-0 lead.

Northeastern had three trips deep into UMass territory, and fumbled two of them away. The offensive numbers were quite similar between the teams, but the score was not.

This has happened all season for the Minutemen. They’ve continued to win games with inferior numbers to their opponents in first downs (trailing 145 to 130), penalties (78 penalties and 663 yards for UMass, 42 and 350 for opponents) and often in time of possession (ranked ninth in the CAA). Those numbers often don’t tell the whole story.

UMass has won three games in which it lost the battle in time of possession, including twice when it trailed by over six full minutes (a 40-30 win over Holy Cross and the four-overtime win, 32-24, over Villanova). In last year’s national championship runner-up season, the Minutemen only had the ball for 60 more seconds than the opposition in 15 games.

Forcing turnovers, creating short fields and getting big plays (which UMass has gotten plenty of) will likely cut down on first downs and time of possession. Instead, if you want a good indicator on how a game goes for the Minutemen, look at third down conversions and red zone scoring percentage.

In each of the last six games involving the Minutemen, the side that converted a higher rate of third down opportunities won the game. Only the season-opening victory for UMass, 40-30 over Holy Cross, was an exception to that rule. Boston College’s 24-14 victory over the Minutemen was due in large part to UMass converting 5-of-16 third downs, while the Eagles were 10-of-17.

Coen and the offense excel on third down, converting 42-of-97 opportunities – good for 43 percent. Last season the Minutemen converted 39 percent of the time. Maintaining and keeping drives alive has allowed UMass to tack on much-needed insurance points.

The Minutemen converted on 8-of-15 third downs against Northeastern, including four times on the three touchdown drives in the first half. They were 5-of-6 in the first half total.

“When you’re in manageable scenarios, good things can happen on third down,” UMass coach Don Brown said. “I’m sure Liam will tell you, you don’t want to see those third and 10’s. We’ve done a good job for most of the year.

“When we’re on schedule, we’re tough to beat,” he added, referring to having manageable third downs. “When we end up with a penalty that derails us, it really comes back to stopping ourselves.”

The penalties have haunted the Minutemen at times, but they’ve overcome many of those mistakes with clutch performances on third downs and in the red zone.

In 26 trips to the red zone this season, UMass has come away with 21 scores (81 percent of the time). Opponents have not capitalized on their opportunities as much, converting 17-of-26 times (65 percent; UMass ranks second in CAA in red zone defense). The Minutemen have forced key turnovers in the red zone all season, including three interceptions, one fumble and one turnover on downs.

Of those 21 red zone scores for UMass, 17 have gone for the touchdown. Getting those six points, as opposed to the three for the field goal, has proven big and put games away late this season.

Statistics can be misleading and things that decide football games don’t always necessarily show up on the stat sheet.

Just ask UMass’s opponents this season.

Eli Rosenswaike can be reached at [email protected]