Minutemen take on prolific URI rushers

By Eli Rosenswaike, Collegian Staff

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Rhode Island amassed 430 rushing yards last weekend against No. 8 New Hampshire.

And lost. By 13 points.

In five Colonial Athletic Association games this season, the Rams have rushed for 1,172 yards (234.4 per game) and 10 touchdowns.

They’ve lost all five of them.

It’s been a difficult season for Rhode Island. The team has suffered through a number of key injuries on offense and has kept games close before succumbing at the end.

The Rams are 1-7 this season and will have to play their best game of the year against UMass (7-1, 5-0 CAA), a team that has won 17 straight regular season games against FCS opponents – including 13 consecutive conference games.

Despite what the records and other numbers might say, UMass coach Don Brown views the Rams as a significant challenge for his football team.

“They’re extremely competitive; they’ve been in every football game,” he said during this week’s conference call. “We’ve got to take care of business. This is the week that from a defensive perspective, we have a lot of work to do.”

Much of that work will be preparing for Rhode Island’s option offense. It’s an offense that the Minutemen don’t see very often.

“You’ve got to prepare for coach [Tim] Stowers’ spread option and all the things that come with it,” Brown said. “That’s a unique style, which is extremely difficult to simulate.”

It’s a style that’s also been hard to stop for opponents this season, with the Rams averaging a conference-best 266 rushing yards per game.

But it will be a tough test for Rhode Island, as well. The Minutemen possess one of the stronger defenses in the FCS, ranking third in the CAA in scoring defense (19.5 points allowed per game) and second in rushing defense (117.5 yards per game).

“Boston College was trying to run the ball on them, and weren’t very successful at it,” URI coach Tim Stowers said during the conference call. “So we have our hands full. They’re always in the right spots, they bring pressure and they’re very athletic and they make plays. They play outstanding defense.”

The Minutemen catch a break this weekend, with Rams starting quarterback Derek Cassidy (ankle) and running back Joe Casey (shoulder) likely out with injuries. But the defense must still contend with running back Jimmy Hughes, who gained 168 yards and three touchdowns last weekend against the Wildcats.

The Rams lose a lot of offense with Casey and Cassidy both going down last weekend. Casey has 782 rushing yards this season (105 last weekend) and Cassidy has good mobility, gaining 444 rushing yards (192 net yards) and three touchdowns. But Stowers believes his offense will be just fine this weekend.

“I thought Jimmy Hughes had an outstanding game,” Stowers said. “He can run outside, he can run inside and he can catch the football. He’s just a complete football player.

“I feel like this might be a better football team if Joe [Casey] can’t play – if we put Jimmy back there and put the ball in his hands,” he added.

Hughes has been a playmaker for the offense, averaging 9.4 yards per touch. He’s accumulated 668 yards of total offense (469 rushing, 199 receiving) and has been a terror to defenses on the ground, averaging 8.1 yards per carry.

“[It’s] a different test [for the defense], because it’s so unique in the way they go about running the football,” Brown said before Wednesday’s practice. “It will be a real disciplined challenge for our guys, because if you make a mistake in the run game and you jump up in the run, you can get beat in the play-action pass.”

Sophomore D.J. Stefkovich will make his first-career start in place of the injured Cassidy this weekend. The backup quarterback also has some mobility, but Rhode Island’s chances hinge on him limiting mistakes and capitalizing on opportunities – something the offense has struggled with this season.

Despite ranking second in the conference in time of possession (32:46 per game), the Rams have problems finishing drives. They rank second-to-last in the 12-team conference in both third down conversions (34.8 percent) and red zone scoring percentage (69 percent). They’ve also struggled on field goals once in the red zone, connecting on just half of their eight field goals tries.

The Rams have 105 more rushing attempts than any other team in the CAA this season, and have run the football 73.8 percent of the time. But they may need to mix it up a little bit if they hope to get their first conference win of the season, because coach Brown will have his defense ready for the spread option offense this weekend.

Eli Rosenswaike can be reached at [email protected]