Hernandez, Pagel lead UMass to victory in 2011 season opener

By Michael Wood

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Jeff Bernstein

Jeff Bernstein

Behind the legs of senior tailback Jonathan Hernandez and a breakout start from quarterback Kellen Pagel, the Massachusetts football team outlasted Holy Cross in its season opener and took home a 24-16 victory on Thursday night.

Hernandez rushed for 151 yards on 29 carries and paced the offense to give the No. 25 Minutemen their first victory of the season. With Thursday’s performance, Hernandez tied his career-high in carries while tallying his second-highest rushing total of his career when he rushed for 166 yards against New Hampshire in 2009. The redshirt senior also caught two balls for 17 yards.

“It was nothing you wouldn’t expect from John,” UMass coach Kevin Morris said. “[Tonight] we got that from John, we need that from John and he’s going to provide it. A lot of those runs were well-blocked and a lot of them were John Hernandez runs where a 3-yard gain turns into 12 somehow, some way.”

While Hernandez ran all over the Crusader defense, it was a bit of a carousel at quarterback for the Minutemen in the first half.

Morris named freshman quarterback Brandon Hill the starter in Wednesday night’s game, but it was Pagel who saw most of the playing time and may have earned himself a second look from his coach.

“We knew Hill was going to start the game and Pagel was going to get some time,” Morris said. “It was a matter of finding that rhythm and, for the young guys, getting used to being under center for the first time.”

Pagel adjusted quickly. After coming into the game off the bench in the second quarter and sharing snaps with Hill, Pagel took over all the playing time in the second half. He went on to finish the game 10-of-16 for 104 yards with two touchdowns. Not only did he impress in his first game as a Minuteman, but he outplayed his competition as Hill finished 5-of-8 for 30 yards.

“[Pagel] was a little more consistent with the game flow and the play calls in and out, so we decided to stick with him,” Morris said. “We’ve got two weeks now to try and iron [the quarterback competition] out. We’re going to get this thing right and take our time and find a guy who has a good flow that gives us a chance to win.”

UMass led for the entirety of the game, scoring 14 points in the first half and 10 in the second. At one point, in the fourth quarter, its lead was as large as 15, but a late comeback attempt by the Crusaders kept the Maroon and White defense on its toes.

With the Minutemen leading, 17-3, in the fourth quarter, Holy Cross threatened to score and cut the deficit to seven points. However, a sack by Perry McIntyre forced the Crusaders into a 47-yard field goal attempt, which kicker Paul Tearson missed. The failed attempt gave UMass the ball back at its own 30-yard-line and set the stage for the offense to take over.

Hernandez took the ball on the next snap for a 40-yard gain the put the Minutemen into scoring position with an ensuing 15-yard reception. Pagel capped off the drive with a four-yard toss to Julian Talley and gave UMass a 15-point lead with under eight minutes left to play.

Holy Cross rallied on its next possession, however, and marched right back down the field to score with under a minute left in regulation. Crusader quarterback Ryan Taggert threw a 19-yard pass to Gerald Mistretta to cut the score to 24-16, but the ensuing onside-kick attempt was recovered by the Minutemen, effectively ending any hope for a Crusader comeback.

The Minutemen have two weeks off before they play again. They will welcome Rhode Island to McGuirk Alumni Stadium on Sept. 17 for the home opener at 6:30 p.m.

Michael Wood can be reached at [email protected]