Minutemen invade Rhode Island

By Eli Rosenswaike, Collegian Staff

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P.J. Stanley/Collegian

Weather permitting, this year’s meeting between the Massachusetts football team and Rhode Island will look nothing like last season’s.

The Minutemen hope that applies to the outcome, as well.

No. 15 UMass travels to Kingston, R.I. for the second year in a row as it puts its postseason hopes on the line against the Rams Saturday. The 2007 encounter was a strange one, as the remnants of Hurricane Noel resulted in severe weather and a hectic 12-6 victory for Rhode Island.

“That game really hurt us,” UMass coach Don Brown said looking back on it before practice on Tuesday. “We just didn’t get it done. But at the same time, the revenge-factor [for this Saturday’s game] is kind of fake motivation. If we’re not motivated to go down there and play our best game, how strong are we?”

The Rams are a much different-looking team offensively this time around, ditching their former triple-option offensive style to more of a spread-offense look. About the only similarity to last year in this meeting will be URI’s winless conference record.

But Brown isn’t overlooking the Rams (2-7, 0-5 Colonial Athletic Association), who have given some of the better teams in the CAA (New Hampshire, William ‘ Mary and Towson) a tough time this season.

“They are in every football game, so that’s concerning,” Brown said. “I think [URI quarterback Derek Cassidy] has made a nice transition [in the new style of offense] and he’s giving them a chance.”

While still incorporating his ability to move in and out of the pocket (he’s gained 326 yards and four touchdowns rushing), Cassidy has thrown for an average of 254.3 yards per game to go along with his 15 touchdown passes. He has been prone to turnovers, however, throwing 12 interceptions.

As opposed to last season, the Rams are much more of a passing team in 2008. Cassidy is averaging over 40 passes per game this season, while the Rams have cut down their rushing attempts (56.5 per game last season, 28.5 this season) virtually in half. That’s a far cry from last year, especially against UMass (5-3, 2-2 CAA), as Cassidy only threw 10 passes to their 63 rushing attempts.

But that was mostly due to the cold, rainy and windy weather, which resulted in nothing but rushing attempts and a few short passes mixed in. Both teams were forced to virtually abandon the kicking game entirely, as punts and field goals didn’t travel.

With a systemic emphasis on the passing game, no Ram running back has run for 300 yards or for more than two scores yet this season.

Without UMass’ star cornerback Sean Smalls – who is likely out for the season due to a hip injury – the key for UMass to stopping URI’s passing attack will be the pressure the defensive front can get on Cassidy. The Minutemen hope that getting defensive end Michael Hanson and defensive tackle Brandon Collier (probable) back from injury will provide the spark.

The Minutemen also expect Tony Nelson – the second-leading rusher for yards per game (101.1) in the CAA – to be at full strength this weekend. The Rams have had problems on defense this season, particularly in the ground game, so Nelson could be a big part of the UMass offensive gameplan.

But expect a big day from the Minutemen through the air, led by quarterback Liam Coen on his final trip to his home state. Coen wasn’t able to be much of a factor in last year’s game (7-of-22 for 22 yards and two interceptions) due to the weather, but is coming off of a superb game against Bryant (389 yards and five touchdown passes) last weekend in the 42-7 victory.

Eli Rosenswaike can be reached at [email protected]