On their way

By Eli Rosenswaike, Collegian Staff

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Michael Phillis/Collegian

UMass v Fordham Audio Slideshow

Rasheed Rancher put on a show in the first half, Matt Lawrence did it in the second half and Liam Coen did it in both halves.

Fordham’s defense was essentially a no-show Saturday and no match for the Massachusetts offense, losing to the Minutemen, 49-35, in the first round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs Saturday at McGuirk Stadium.

No. 7 UMass racked up 649 yards of total offense and advanced to the second round of the playoffs for a matchup next weekend in Carbondale, Ill., against No. 4 Southern Illinois. The Salukis (11-1) defeated Eastern Illinois, 30-11, Saturday.

“It was kind of a wild football game,” UMass coach Don Brown said. “This game certainly took its toll, but it’s one we feel good about. We found a way to win, and in the tournament it’s all about one thing: surviving and advancing.”

“This one hurts, but I’m proud of the way our kids played and the effort they gave,” Fordham coach Tom Masella said. “It was a heck of a football game. We seemed to hang in there but just kind of got worn down at the end.”

The Minutemen (10-2, 7-1 Colonial Athletic Association) had chances to put the game away, but No. 25 Fordham (8-4) hung around for much of the contest after it capitalized on key UMass mistakes. But Lawrence took over the game in the second half, rushing for 124 of his 167 yards and for two of his three touchdowns. Rancher had 198 yards receiving – all but 11 in the first half – and Coen broke the school record with 419 yards passing. He threw four touchdown passes without committing a turnover.

“I didn’t get pressured all day,” Coen said. “With those guys up front, for us to throw for 300 [yards] in the first half and Matt to blow up in the second half is something we wanted to get accomplished. It all starts up front.”

Leading 35-28 late in the third quarter, the Minutemen appeared to be just yards away from the game-breaking score. On third-and-goal at the 4-yard line, Coen handed the ball to Lawrence – who proceeded to throw the ball into the end zone in the direction of tight end Ian Jorgensen. The ball was tipped and landed into the arms of James Crockett for the interception.

Crockett took the ball out of the end zone and returned it to the 2-yard line. Facing a long field, the Rams offense took full advantage of a pass interference penalty on Michael Meggett. On third-and-5 at Fordham’s own 7-yard line, Meggett committed a 1-yard spot foul on the interference call, giving Fordham’s offense an automatic first down.

Quarterback John Skelton engineered a 12-play, 98-yard drive that took up over five minutes of the game clock to tie the game at 35. Skelton had a career-high five touchdowns on the afternoon (three passing, two rushing). This one came on an 11-yard pass to Sylvester Clark a few minutes into the fourth quarter.

After throwing for 306 yards in the first half, Coen and the offense changed philosophies in the second half and continued to hand the ball to Lawrence. It paid off again on the ensuing drive after Fordham tied the game, as Lawrence had several long rushes. A 13-yard run capped the drive and gave UMass the lead for good at 42-35.

“If he wants to throw for 300 yards – shoot – let him throw, I don’t have any problems with it,” Lawrence joked. “But if he ever needs me, I’m right there. They said run the ball, so that’s what I did. I can’t complain, sometimes I wasn’t even getting touched; it was a running back’s dream.”

Fordham’s last chance to get back into the game ended on the next drive, when Skelton was intercepted by Charles Walker. Walker returned the ball to the Fordham 22 and Lawrence took care of the rest six plays later for his third touchdown run of the game.

After the game, UMass coach Don Brown talked about his frustration with his punting unit, which had three miscues. With a 21-7 lead in the second quarter, Brett Arnold’s punt was blocked by Nicholas Magiera, giving the Rams good field position. Fordham scored a touchdown on the drive with a pass from Skelton to Cody Kritzer to pull within seven points.

But that was all forgotten just a minute later. After a 38-yard kickoff return to the Fordham 41-yard line by Jeremy Horne, Coen and Rancher hooked up once again. On the first play from scrimmage, Coen found his 6-foot-5 target for a 41-yard touchdown. Rancher caught the ball along the right side of the field and cut all the way across to the left sideline for the score.

But it was Rancher’s first touchdown catch that everyone wanted to talk about. During UMass’s first drive in the second quarter, Coen lofted the ball up in the end zone for Rancher. The ball floated over three Rams defenders, and Rancher dove full extension on the ground and reeled it in for the score and the 21-7 lead.

After a three-and-out for Fordham, Coen completed a long pass to a wide open Rancher on the left side. The completion went for 48 yards, but Rancher fumbled the ball after a Kennith Thompson strip. Thompson recovered the ball and returned it for 27 yards. The Minutemen committed a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the play, giving the Rams the ball on the UMass 18.

After a few plays and an 18-yard completion to the 1-yard line, Fordham called a timeout with three seconds remaining in the half. Masella decided to go for it, and Skelton made that decision pay off with his second touchdown run of the game, giving the Rams new life at 28-21 entering halftime.

Fordham tied the game minutes into the third quarter, on a 19-yard touchdown pass to Richard Rayborn. Coen answered on a 33-yard touchdown pass to fullback Chris Zardas on the next drive to regain the 7-point lead. The Rams would eventually tie it on the 98-yard drive following the interception of Lawrence.

The second punting unit mistake came late in the fourth quarter, after the game was already in hand. Arnold muffed the handle of the long snap, and was forced to throw the ball – which was completed for a six-yard loss to linebacker George Byrd.

The UMass punt return team got burned as well, when Fordham executed a fake punt to perfection on fourth-and-2 on its own 26-yard line, trailing 14-0 in the first quarter. The snap went directly to Magiera, who ran the ball 38 yards to the UMass 36. Skelton later scored on a 1-yard run, jumping over the top of the defenders to cut the lead to 14-7.

Game notes

The Minutemen tied the school record with 651 yards of total offense with just minutes remaining in the game, but two Coen kneel-downs left UMass two yards short of the mark