Massachusetts Daily Collegian

COLUMN: UMass making baby steps

By Stephen Hewitt

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Maria Uminski/Collegian

Maria Uminski/Collegian

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – It’s hard to spin things in a positive direction for any team that loses by over seven touchdowns in a football game.

It doesn’t matter if you’re the new kid on the block or the seasoned veteran; a 50-point loss is ugly no matter how you look at it.

The Massachusetts football team is losing a lot these days. The newest member of the Football Bowl Subdivision is struggling to score points, find consistency on defense and pretty much everything else. It’s not pretty.

First-year coach Charley Molnar isn’t making excuses, though. He knew what he was getting into.

From the start, he’s admitted that this team doesn’t have as much talent as most teams it plays against this season. Certainly not this year, probably not next year and perhaps not even the year after that. This is a long-term reconstruction project, not an overnight tune-up.

It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out that was the case Saturday afternoon at Michigan Stadium. The 110,708 fans in attendance knew Michigan was superior to UMass. I know it. You know it. Michigan is the winningest FBS program in history. UMass has been an FBS team for three games.

That’s not what this was about, though. It meant more than that. Even more than receiving a $650,000 paycheck to get steamrolled, 63-13, in front of over 100,000 people.

No matter the opponent, for this team, it’s only about trying to get better. There’s no Mid-American Conference championship or postseason aspirations in sight – they’re disallowed to participate per FBS transition rules. Throw all of that stuff out of the window. Molnar has said his one goal this season is to simply lay down the foundation for the future of UMass football – one that he believes will net him a MAC championship in five years. But that’s a story for another time.

No, this season is simply about getting better. Play by play, drive by drive, game by game.

And guess what? They kind of are. It may be incremental, tiny pieces of progression, but it’s getting there.

Take Saturday for example. Forget about the lopsided final score for a second, narrow in on the positives, and you’ll see what I’m trying to say here. On every side of the ball, something substantial happened that should give fans a dose of optimism.

On offense, both in the passing and ground games, strides were made, albeit small ones.

I watched a redshirt freshman, quarterback Mike Wegzyn, in the face of one of the loudest stadiums in the country, change the play at the line of scrimmage, making sure to relay the message to his teammates anyway he could like he was Peyton Manning, then call his own number as he burst up the middle for a 16-yard first down.

Progress.

I watched a true freshman, wide receiver Tajae Sharpe, haul in a perfectly placed pass from Wegzyn, making an acrobatic play to make sure he kept one foot in bounds for the 22-yard first down.

Progress.

I watched as the offensive line, which had struggled to ward off opposing defensive fronts in the first two games, made enough room – with the help of the returning Anthony Dima – to give Michael Cox space to run. The senior running back finished with 18 carries for 76 yards, both season-bests.

Progress.

On defense, positives were rare, but existent. I watched defensive back Christian Birt read one of Denard Robinson’s passes perfectly, picking it off and returning it 32 yards to the house for the Minutemen’s only touchdown of the afternoon.

Progress.

And on special teams, I even watched Brendon Levengood have a solid game, booting home two field goals and almost nailing a 45-yarder that went wide left. Molnar assured us that he would make one of those this season.

Progress.

Sure, the mistakes were there all afternoon. Levengood’s opening kickoff went out-of-bounds. Brian Dowling muffed two punts, giving it back to Michigan once. Wegzyn dropped a few handoffs between him and the running backs. UMass was flagged for 10 penalties, including back-to-back head-scratching chop blocks by offensive lineman Stephane Milhim.

Those kinds of mistakes are expected for a team so young and inexperienced, but for a team still breaking into the FBS like a new pair of shoes, Saturday’s result wasn’t as catastrophic as the score may indicate.

UMass is getting there, one baby step at a time.

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

 

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