MAC play provides fresh start for UMass football

By Stephen Sellner

Maria Uminski/Collegian

To say it’s been a difficult start for the Massachusetts football team in its inaugural season in the Football Bowl Subdivision could be considered an understatement.

After all, the Minutemen’s first three losses of the season were by a combined score of 145-19.

But UMass (0-3) begins its first-ever conference schedule as a member of the Mid-American Conference on Saturday at Miami (Ohio), giving the team a clean slate after its rough non-conference play.

“(It’s) definitely a clean slate because these are the games that really count in our season and that are really weighted more heavily than the out-of-conference games,” quarterback Mike Wegzyn said.

UMass coach Charley Molnar agrees and said he’s anxious to see how his team stacks up against its new conference foe, the RedHawks (1-2).

“At the end, it doesn’t matter if you’re in the Mid-American Conference or the South Eastern Conference, at the end of the day you need to win your league,” Molnar said. “That’s how you get measured, so how we do in our league is very, very important to us. Find out where we’re at, how we stack up against other Mid-American Conference teams. I’m anxious to see it. Of course I’m anxious for every game, but this has a little bit different meaning now.”

The Minutemen’s next four opponents are against MAC teams, including their MAC home opener against Ohio on Sept. 29. UMass then travels to Western Michigan (Oct. 6) and welcomes Bowling Green on Oct. 20 to Gillette Stadium.

Despite the fresh start of conference play, Wegzyn doesn’t want to completely forget about the team’s first three games. In fact, he feels they’ve helped the team, particularly the offense, grow as a unit.

“I feel like those have helped us build and learn as a team and kind of grow together and mesh better as an offense, too, so I think going into this game, I feel really good about the offense,” Wegzyn said.

The Minutemen will have their hands full against a Miami team that is established in the conference. Miami has gone 10-6 in MAC play over the past two seasons, including a 2010 MAC championship.

Molnar feels this matchup will be a true test to gauge where UMass is and how far it has to go to be considered one of the top teams in the conference.

“Miami has traditionally been one of the elite teams in the Mid-American Conference and I think they’ll be back there again, if not right now, in the near future,” Molnar said, “so where we’re at right now would be a great barometer to see where this program’s at and how much work we need to do to get to the top.”

Morale not an issue after loss to Michigan

After suffering a 63-13 beat down at Michigan last Saturday, it capped a gruesome start to the season for UMass.

Molnar admitted that the losses have hurt, but conference play provides a fresh start that the Minutemen can use to their advantage heading forward.

“The losses hurt, believe me. It’s not like they just brush it off. I think now they’re focused in on the Mid-American conference schedule,” Molnar said. “It’s a clean slate and I think our players feel that too. I think by the time we landed, got back, woke up the next day, I think they kind of got their sights set on Miami (Ohio).”

Wegyzn said that players have to be able to move on from difficult defeats in order to be prepared for their next opportunity.

“I wouldn’t say it’s hard to move on from because you just have to,” he said. “Especially when you have a couple losses like we did, you just have to put that behind you as fast as you can. You watch film, learn from it and then move on to the next game.”

Despite the losses, UMass has improved — albeit marginally — since the start of the season.
The offense continued to show signs of life against the No. 18 Wolverines, mounting a pair of scoring drives with Wegzyn under center.

Even the defense had a few bright spots, including a Christian Birt interception return for a touchdown to bring the Minutemen within 11 points midway through the second quarter.

Senior safety Darren Thellen feels that continuing to see progress against Miami will help the development of the team.

“Just seeing progress is going to encourage everyone to keep on working and pushing hard to get better,” Thellen said.

Kickoff is scheduled for noon in Oxford, Ohio.

Stephen Sellner can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @MDC_Sellner.