Inexperience, inability to finish haunts UMass

By Stephen Sellner

Maria Uminski/Collegian

FOXBORO — The theme all year for the Massachusetts football team in its inaugural season in the Football Bowl Subdivision has been progress, no matter how much or how little.

And with the Minutemen (0-5, 0-2 Mid American Conference) holding onto a 24-20 midway through the third quarter, I started to wonder just how big of a win it would be for winless UMass to grab their first FBS and MAC win at home over an undefeated Ohio team.

It started to feel like it was the Minutemen’s game to win. But that’s when the inexperience of the Minutemen finally showed up in their first exposure to a game destined to go down to the wire.

UMass drove the ball all the way to the Bobcats (5-0, 1-0 MAC) 1-yard line for a third and goal play that could have pushed the Minutemen lead to two possessions on a touchdown. But a false start by receiver Alan Williams pushed the ball back to the 6-yard line, followed by an incomplete pass by Mike Wegzyn forced UMass to settle for a 23-yard field goal by Blake Lucas.

What could have been an 11-point lead was, instead, only a seven-point advantage, one that Ohio recovered from on the next possession to knot the score at 27 en route to its 37-34 nail-biter at Gillette Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

In a game that was decided by three points, that four-point swing looms large; especially when you’re a team in search of its first win of the season.

UMass coach Charley Molnar was frustrated that the penalty, essentially, ruined a promising drive that could have put the Minutemen in a good position to close out the game.

“It was less than one (yard). It was (a) half-yard. I mean, eleven different ways we could get it in from there,” he said. “But man oh man, you work so hard to get down there and then to end the drive with a field goal was very, very disappointing, believe me.”

Despite the penalty, UMass still had the ball with 50 seconds left with a chance to win with a touchdown or tie with a field goal. But after bringing the ball to Ohio’s 45-yard line, Wegzyn threw four straight incompletions to turn the ball over on downs and bring an abrupt halt to the potential game-winning drive.

With the growing pains the offense endured in its first two games, the Minutemen had never been in a game-winning situation like that. The inexperienced clearly showed in that sequence.

Although it didn’t end the way he wanted, the drive was another learning experience for Wegzyn in his first year in college football, one that he’s now better prepared for when the situation arises again.

“We practice it every week, but it’s not the same as when you’re in the game actually doing the two-minute drill and it’s coming down, all the pressure’s on the offense. So that’s huge,” Wegzyn said. “It’s gonna help us moving forward, definitely, because if we need to do that again, we’ve got that under our belt. We know what to expect going into it.”

Unfortunately, for an inexperienced team, there’s only so much that can be emulated in practice. Sometimes the only way to be ready for a situation is to fail in it and learn from it. UMass learned that the hard way.

Regardless, the Minutemen continues to show glimpses of progress, whether it’s the play of Wegzyn (27-for-51, 373 yards and four touchdowns) or the entire offense (511 total yards and 37 points). But its failure to put all phases together in one contest has haunted them and cost them in back-to-back games.

On Saturday, it was the rush defense as Bobcats running back Beau Blankenship torched the Minutemen with 269 yards rushing on 43 carries and a pair of touchdowns. Last week at Miami (Ohio), it was ineffectiveness in the red zone with only 16 points on five trips inside the 20-yard line.

Promising signs are everywhere with this team, but the ability to put together a 60-minute effort in all phases of the game is next on the checklist for UMass if it wants to turn tough, disappointing losses into persevering, grind-out victories.

“We have no choice but to put everything together, you know,” safety Darren Thellen said. “Week by week we’ve been showing signs of improvement, but we just got to put it all together. … We want to win so we have to put everything together to come out with a win next week.”

If nothing else, the Minutemen have clearly proven to doubters that they belong in the MAC and the FBS. They’ve now hung tough (and then some) with two of the most prolific teams the conference has to offer and it’s only the first year.

In a few years, it’s not ridiculous to think that this team could compete for a MAC championship. They just need to iron out the growing pains and continue to gain valuable experience.

For UMass’ sake, the sooner that happens, the better.

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