Special teams problems for Minutemen in Colonial Clash with UNH Wildcats

By Michael Wood

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Jeff Bernstein/Collegian

Jeff Bernstein/Collegian

FOXBORO — When the Massachusetts football team missed its second extra point of the game against New Hampshire on Saturday, it was the culmination of a complete-day struggle for the special teams’ play that allowed the Wildcats to defeat the Minutemen, 27-21.

UMass placekicker Brendon Levengood missed two extra points wide left in the contest and cost the Minutemen a vital two points. Also, an early call by UMass coach Kevin Morris to go for a two-point conversion failed, which could have accounted for two more points, or possibly one – had the Minutemen converted on a regular extra point.

Each of those three point-after attempts cost the Minutemen anywhere from three-to-four points, which, if were successful, could have made a significant difference at the end of the game.

From the very first play of the day, it was obvious that field positioning was going to be a deciding factor in the contest, and along with that comes the play of each squad’s special teams unit.

The Wildcats took the opening kickoff back to UMass’s 42-yard line and a touchdown and ensuing two-point conversion put the Minutemen down by eight points before they even possessed the ball.

“The difference at the end of the game came at the beginning,” said Morris. “They came out strong with a good kick return and punched that in for the score and we were playing from behind for the rest of the ballgame.”

Fast forward to the fourth quarter, with the Minutemen trailing UNH, 24-12, quarterback Kellen Pagel took the ball down the field and scored on a 5-yard touchdown run to cut the deficit to six points before the extra-point. Levengood then missed his second point-after attempt of the day and UMass trailed, 24-18.

“[It was surprising], considering the percentage rates for most teams are about 99.9 percent,” said Morris. “So yes, we missed two today and it’s very disappointing.”

Had the Minutemen made all three extra-point attempts, at that point in the game, they would have trailed UNH, 24-21, making for a drastically different game plan and time management strategy as time ticked away late in the quarter.

Wildcat kicker Mike MacArthur later made a 35-yard field goal, but even after that score, UMass could have still only trailed by six points with 10 minutes to play, rather than the nine that it ended up being. That extra three-point difference not only took the confidence of the Minutemen, but also made for a two-possession game, requiring at least a touchdown and field goal to win.

Of course, missed extra points weren’t the only thing that went wrong for UMass at Gillette. The team committed four costly penalties for 30 yards and also lost the battle of field position on kickoffs and turnovers.

“We weren’t able to overcome our own mistakes and penalties,” said Morris. “And we’re certainly looking forward to moving up and moving on after this ballgame.”

UNH running back and return man, Dontra Peters, returned three punts for 98 yards, including a 44-yard scamper which put the Wildcats in UMass territory. He was instrumental for the run game as well, dismantling the Minutemen’s defensive front and rushing for a total of 92 yards and two touchdowns.

Once again, the special teams came up short, this time on kickoff coverage, and allowed the Wildcats to work with a short field all game long. Morris commented that of all things, this is what hurt his team the most.

“The big difference in the game [was special teams and field position],” said Morris. “They probably had the ball on the 45-50 yard line [almost every time]. Down on our end, our starting field probably wasn’t quite near that. It’s obviously a great advantage for an offense to take the ball at midfield.”

Michael Wood can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter at @MDC_Wood.