Round 1: Rams in Amherst

By Eli Rosenswaike, Collegian Staff

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Brian Tedder/Collegian

Massachusetts football coach Don Brown will try to avoid previous history Saturday when the Minutemen host Fordham in the opening round of the NCAA Division I Football Championship at McGuirk Stadium.

Although these teams have never met on the gridiron, Fordham bested Brown in the first round of the 2002 tournament when he was the coach at Northeastern. The ties don’t end there, as Rams coach Tom Masella served as the UMass defensive coordinator from 2002-2003 when Mark Whipple was the head coach.

The game airs Saturday at noon on ESPNU. The winner will play No. 4 Southern Illinois or No. 18 Eastern Illinois on Dec. 1. If the Salukis win, either UMass or Fordham will have to travel to Carbondale, Ill., for the second-round matchup. If the Minutemen win and the Panthers pull off the upset, UMass gets another home game.

The No.7 Minutemen have reached the tournament for the second consecutive season on the strength of winning the inaugural Colonial Athletic Association Championship. UMass (9-2, 7-1 CAA) tied Richmond atop the conference standings, but the Minutemen were awarded the conference automatic tournament bid via a coin flip after they were deadlocked in all three tie-breakers. The league’s athletic directors (minus the ADs from UMass and Richmond) had a conference call to determine the champion, but concluded the two teams were “indistinguishable” and decided it with the coin flip.

Masella took over the No. 25 Rams (8-3, 5-1 Patriot League) last season and endured a difficult 3-8 season. Fordham was picked to finish in sixth place out of seven teams this season, but surprised its critics with their first playoff appearance since the 2002 win over the Huskies.

Last season the Minutemen captured the Atlantic 10 title, and made it to the NCAA Championship game against Appalachian State. UMass entered the fourth quarter tied with the Mountaineers, but lost 28-17 in front of 22,808 fans in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Fordham is 5-0 on the road this season, including wins over the then-three-time defending Patriot League Champion Lafayette and against Rhode Island – a team UMass lost to for its only conference defeat.

“Coach Masella does a good job of keeping them focused,” Brown said. “They’re very solid in structure on both sides, and I just think that being around a veteran presence like Tom they’re very focused in what they’re trying to do. That’s really the key to winning on the road is maintaining your focus in a strange environment.”

Something has to give this weekend, as the Minutemen are 5-0 at home in 2007. UMass has outscored its opponents 159-81 at McGuirk Stadium.

On offense the Minutemen are led by quarterback Liam Coen (23 touchdowns, 11 interceptions), running back Matt Lawrence (1,306 rushing yards, 13 touchdowns) and receiver J.J. Moore (891 receiving yards and five touchdowns). UMass averages 29.7 points per game.

Defensively, UMass ranks first in the CAA in scoring defense, allowing 16.4 points per game – easily besting the second-best defense in the conference (James Madison, 21.5). Defensive ends David Burris and Michael Hanson were the leading sack tandem in the conference, with 16.

Fordham has been equally impressive on offense, averaging 28.5 points per game. Quarterback John Skelton has thrown for 19 touchdowns (10 interceptions) and has proven to be a dual threat – rushing for 440 yards and four touchdowns.

The Rams use the spread offense, and Skelton utilizes a number of different receivers in the passing game. Six different players have caught multiple touchdown passes, with Richard Rayborn (483 yards) and Asa Lucas (573) emerging as Skelton’s main targets.

On the ground, Fordham likes to hand the ball off to both senior Jonte Coven and freshman Xavier Martin. Coven has 926 rushing yards and five touchdowns, while Martin has 612 yards and eight touchdowns. The first-year tailback was named Patriot League Rookie of the Week three times. The offensive line for the Rams has been strong, and is anchored by senior captains Mike Breznicky and Michael Nardone.

Fordham’s defense (22.6 points allowed per game) hasn’t been as strong as UMass’s, but is a talented group. Five different players have recorded at least two interceptions.

“They do some different things [on defense],” Coen said. “They try to mix up who the fourth rusher is, and try to mix up who the linebackers are and defensive ends are. They try to mess with the protections. I think their plan is going to bring pressure.”

The Rams do a terrific job in playing the field position game, leading all of Division I in net punting at 40.87 yards. Punter Benjamin Dato has averaged 45 yards per punt.

Eli Rosenswaike can be reached at [email protected]