Brown returns to Brookline

By Eli Rosenswaike, Collegian Staff

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The resurgence of the Massachusetts football team’s defense and subsequent big win over Delaware will all be for nothing if UMass can’t beat Northeastern this weekend.

If history is any indication, that shouldn’t be a problem.

The No. 13 Minutemen (3-2, 1-1 Colonial Athletic Association) have won 21 of their last 22 meeting against the Huskies. The last time Northeastern beat the Maroon and White was in 2002 – when current UMass coach Don Brown was roaming the sidelines in Brookline.

That will be the site of this Saturday’s meeting between the schools, which have formed a unique rivalry since Brown’s controversial departure from Northeastern following the 2003 season.

But these teams have met four times since then (Brown is 4-0 against his former team) and the stigma from this yearly meeting has worn off some.

“Obviously there is some history there and we just got to keep our emotions in check and just go out and play another game,” senior quarterback Liam Coen said. “Maybe a couple years ago it probably would have been a little more bitter and guys would have been a little bit more ticked off but not so much now.

“It’s another business trip and we’ve got to go out and try to take care of business and play a good football team,” he said.

The Huskies (2-3, 1-0 CAA) endured a tough 2007 season, finishing up at 3-8 overall and 2-6 in the conference. But coach Rocky Hager’s team is stronger this season, led by senior quarterback Anthony Orio and senior running back Alex Broomfield.

The Huskies’ signal-caller spent much of last season handing the ball off to running back Maurice Murray – passing for just eight touchdowns in 11 games. But Orio leads a more balanced attack now, averaging over 206 yards passing per game (up from 141.6 in 2007). Broomfield has filled in nicely for the graduated Murray, rushing for 509 yards (4.2 yard average) and five touchdowns.

Orio does a good job of limiting turnovers (nine interceptions in the last two seasons) and can move around well in the pocket – rushing for over 400 yards during that span. He keeps the chains moving (NU is 40 percent on third downs) and the offensive line keeps him on his feet, allowing just six sacks this season.

“Anthony Orio is playing really solid, making great decisions in the throw game,” Brown said. “We have our hands full as they use a lot of formations. They’re trying to get on the perimeter on you, and we’re going to have to be ready for a great attack there.”

Orio struggled last year against the Minutemen, though, completing just half of his 24 passes for 162 yards in a 24-7 loss in Amherst.

But the key to Saturday’s game will likely be how lethal UMass’ offensive attack will be against the defense of Northeastern – which has struggled this season. The Minutemen failed to capitalize on many of their chances against the Blue Hens last weekend, but the defense played well enough to ensure the 17 points UMass scored was enough for a win.

Running back Tony Nelson could be in for a big day once again for the Minutemen. Northeastern has allowed 870 rushing yards in five games, giving up 11 touchdowns and a 4.3-yard average per rush. That bodes well for Nelson, who has emerged this season with four 100-plus yard rushing games, 575 yards (5.8 yards per carry) and five touchdowns.

The passing defense for the Huskies – other than star corner Nate Thellen and his four interceptions – hasn’t been great either. Opponents have averaged 283.6 yards per game through the air, but Thellen’s play-making and a strong blitzing defense have helped cause turnovers and held teams to field goals.

“They’re a physical defense and they don’t give up a lot of big plays,” Coen said of the NU defense, which held the UMass signal-caller to 191 yards and no touchdowns last season. “They have some veteran guys and are good up front and in the secondary.”

Northeastern has played much better lately, having won two straight games after allowing 30 or more points in three straight losses to enter the season. The Minutemen appear to be back on track, as well, defeating then-No. 16 Delaware last weekend after they re-grouped during their bye week from consecutive blowout losses to James Madison and Texas Tech.

This weekend the Huskies have the perfect opportunity to get back at Brown for leaving Brookline for Amherst – as a loss for the Minutemen would put them in serious trouble at 3-3 overall and 1-2 in the CAA. More than that, a Northeastern win could put them in the Top 25 for the first time in a long while.

Eli Rosenswaike can be reached at [email protected]