Minutemen search for positives in season-opening beatdown

By Stephen Hewitt

EAST HARTFORD, Conn. – It couldn’t get much worse for the Massachusetts football team Thursday night at Rentschler Field.

Maria Uminski/Collegian

In their first game as a member of the Football Bowl Subdivision, the Minutemen were outscored by Connecticut, 37-0, outgained in total offense 372-59, had 10 three-and-outs on offense and looked totally out of sync in almost every way.

For coach Charley Molnar and his team, positives were clearly at a premium Thursday night. But despite the team’s inexperience and talent level yielding a less than ideal outlook for his team this season, one in which it is transitioning from the FCS to the FBS, Molnar still expected a lot more from his team in their debut.

“I’m disappointed in tonight,” Molnar said. “I’m shocked we didn’t score. I’m shocked we didn’t score quite a few times. I came into the game thinking that we had made progress and that would start to show tonight, but for whatever reason it didn’t.

“I also know this: I know that we’ve got better. I know where we’re going.”

On a night in which the offense failed to move the ball with any rhythm, converting only three first downs to UConn’s 16, one positive that the Minutemen may be able to come out with from Thursday’s performance is the play of the defense, one that was not bestowed with as much expectations as its perceived high-powered offensive counterpart before the start of the season.

Despite the offense not gaining any kind of steam, seemingly instantly putting the defense back onto the field following each of its drives, the defense played well considering they were on the field for most of the game with a lot of inexperienced players seeing their first college snaps.

Only 23 of the Huskies’ 37 points were put up against the UMass defense, and the Minutemen converted a number of plays that the coaching staff can certainly build on for the future.

“The defense was on the field an awful lot, especially in the first half,” Molnar said. “We had such an inability of the offense to sustain drives and given UConn’s short field, it’s just impossible to play great defense over and over again and again. They weren’t all necessarily young starters, we had a lot of young backups, and sooner or later, I’m looking out there and there they are.

“But I thought the defense hung in there, and yeah, there were times when I didn’t think they gave the effort that I wanted. Guys weren’t ready for the snap of the ball … but all in all, I thought the defense probably played about as well, in spots, as expected without any help from the offense or the kicking game. It was like they were out there all by themselves.”

In all, UMass forced three turnovers – two interceptions, one fumble recovery – and provided the only source of life for the team all night.

The play of the night came in the first quarter. With the Huskies leading early, 7-0, and driving down the field again in UMass territory, UConn quarterback Chandler Whitmer made an ill-advised throw into UMass coverage down the sidelines. With the ball sailing out of bounds, free safety Darren Thellen leapt into the air with enough awareness to tip the ball back in bounds and into the arms of Tom Brandt, who returned the interception back up field for 20 yards.

“I wanted to get the pick but I knew I couldn’t make it,” Thellen said. “I just jumped up, and I saw one of my teammates close, so I just tried to throw it in, and fortunately he caught it and made a play.”

For Thellen, a redshirt senior, it’s surely not the first time he’s made a game-changing play.

The defensive ball-hawker has seven interceptions in his career, including an exceptional 2011 campaign in which he snagged five picks for 172 return yards and a touchdown. Expectations are sky high for Thellen in his last season, and if Thursday night is indication, he’s up for the challenge.

It’s no secret that the Minutemen are going to have challenges in 2012. Thursday night is evidence of that. But if they’re looking to draw positives, they don’t have to look any further than the defense, and more specifically, Thellen, who will be an important teacher to a young team this season.

“Darren Thellen is a playmaker, and if that’s one of the few highlights of the night, then so be it, but that was beautiful,” Molnar said of the play. “That’ll be on the end-of-the-year highlight film, I can guarantee you that.

“We just need to have more of those plays. We can’t have more than one Darren Thellen, unfortunately. I was talking to one of my coaches during pregame meals, I said I wish I had 105 of him, because we would never lose a game.”

Stephen Hewitt can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @steve_hewitt.