Inclement conditions lead to historic game

By Eli Rosenswaike, Collegian Staff

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KINGSTON, R.I. – It doesn’t matter how many football games you’ve been to, you haven’t seen it all.

But if you were fortunate enough – or unfortunate enough, considering the horrendous weather – to attend Saturday’s game between Massachusetts and Rhode Island, you’re that much closer.

Because maybe you’ve seen a football game with eight fumbles.

Maybe you’ve seen a game with winds so strong that a punt traveled negative yardage.

And maybe you’ve been to one of the few NCAA games when one team recorded three safeties.

But never have you been to a football game that has ever featured all of these things, and a whole lot more.

That is, unless you went to Saturday’s game between Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

“We feel very fortunate to be able to beat the No. 3 football team in the country,” URI coach Tim Stowers said after the game.

Considering the cold weather coupled with the hard rain and gusts of at least 40 MPH wind, those involved in the game probably felt fortunate just to head back to their respective locker rooms.

But the heated press conference room was no solace to UMass coach Don Brown and Matt Lawrence, who appeared dejected after their first conference loss of the season.

“Nothing came easy out there in a day like today,” Brown said in his opening statement to the media. “Special teams were an absolute nightmare all day long. I thought we did a decent job in handling the elements, but we just didn’t do enough on a day like today.”

What UMass (7-2, 5-1 Colonial Athletic Association) did do was record three safeties on defense in the game, a feat only accomplished one other time in Football Championship Subdivision history – also by the Minutemen in a 2005 tilt against Albany.

The first two safeties came on bad snaps by freshman longsnapper Steffan Lazerow. The first bad snap sailed well over URI punter Bryan Giannecchini’s head, and went 31 yards backwards into the end zone for the safety – recorded by Keiron Brown.

The second one was similar to the first, but this time the ball slipped through Giannecchini’s fingers and Victor Cruz took him down in the end zone for the safety.

With the rain consistently pouring down all game, the field became extremely muddy and that led to the third UMass safety. With the ball on its own 3-yard line, URI quarterback D.J. Stefkovich slipped and fell in the end zone, giving Kyle Harrington the final safety – tying the game at 6-6 early in the fourth quarter.

The action actually picked up directly following the safeties. After the first safety, URI booted the free kick high into the air, and the wind took it back – and almost into the arms of a Rams player. A massive pile fighting for the ball was removed, and the Minutemen had the ball.

The following free kick was also eventful. The Minutemen smartly called for a fair catch and the Rams incurred a 15-yard penalty when they interfered with the returner – giving the Minutemen terrific field position at the URI 27-yard line. But Coen was intercepted in the end zone four plays later.

The weather had a huge impact on the punting, as well. The wind was so strong, that UMass punter Brett Arnold – who entered the game as the second-leading punter in the CAA – recorded a punt in the first quarter that almost went backwards. The ball landed a few yards past the line of scrimmage and took a bounce backwards – and went down in the books as a punt of negative 1-yard.

There were three punts in the game under 10 yards, including a6-yard punt by each punter. On Arnold’s next punt after the 1-yarder – this time, with the wind – he blasted a 59-yard punt.

With the wins making that much of a difference, neither Stefkovich nor UMass’s Liam Coen had any success throwing the ball. Coen (7-of-22 for 22 yards and two INT) and Stefkovich (3-of-10 for 62 yards) combined for just three passing first downs all game.

Both teams were forced to consistently run the ball with the wind and rain, and that resulted in consistent fumbles for both sides – especially Rhode Island. The Rams fumbled six times, losing two of them. The Minutemen added two fumbles of their own, losing one.

With passing almost not an option, both defenses stacked the line of scrimmage to stop the run. This made it very difficult to sustain drives and pick up key third downs, and the statistics certainly backed that up. UMass was 2-of-16 on third downs, while URI was 5-of-19.

Since punting against the wind almost made no sense, the teams combined to go for it on fourth down nine times (seven by the Rams).

“I’m very proud of our coaching staff and our football team for doing an outstanding job and finding a way to win the game,” Stowers said.

Despite the win, the 26-year coach probably hopes he never has to endure or witness a game like that again.

Chances are, he never will. But you never know.

The next game you watch there could be four safeties.

Eli Rosenswaike can be reached at [email protected]