UMass football mid-season report

By Stephen Sellner

Maria Uminski/Collegian File Photo

Entering its inaugural season in the Football Bowl Subdivision, the outlook on the Massachusetts football team’s season wasn’t promising.

Now, at the halfway point of the year, so much, yet so little, has changed for the Minutemen.

UMass (0-6, 0-3 Mid-American Conference) has experienced high’s and low’s during its transition year to the FBS. One week, the Minutemen are hanging neck-and-neck with Ohio, matching the undefeated Bobcats score-for-score all the way to the wire.

The next, they’re put away quickly like in last week’s 52-14 rout at Western Michigan.

Stringing together a complete 60-minute effort has hindered UMass in multiple games. In the Sept. 29 loss against Ohio, the Minutemen offense clicked on all cylinders, racking up season-highs in total yards (511) and points (34).

Turned out it wasn’t enough, however, as UMass was torched on the ground by the Bobcats to the tune of 274 rushing yards.

UMass coach Charley Molnar said the team’s winless record is fairly indicative of the Minutemen’s play thus far this season.

“I don’t know if we deserve to win a game yet,” Molnar said. “But as I’ve told the team, this is our second season. That’s what we’re calling this next six games. We played the first season 0-6, we don’t liked the way it tastes, don’t like the way it looks. Now we have a second season to see if we can go 6-0.”

Despite the winless record, Molnar’s impression of UMass’ first six games has given him reason to be optimistic heading into the team’s “second season.”

After all, the Minutemen have come a long way from its season-opening, 37-0 beat down at Connecticut on Aug. 30, in which they managed 56 yards of offense and failed to cross their own 40-yard line.

Molnar said the season has been “disappointing, not discouraging.”

“When I say that, I’m disappointed we haven’t won some football games, but I’m not discouraged,” he continued. “I think our guys are working hard, they believe in each other, they believe in the coaches. They know that we’re gonna win, it’s just a matter of when.”

Some of the work has paid off, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Redshirt freshman quarterback Mike Wegzyn has taken control of the offense in most games, with hiccups against the Broncos on Saturday and at Miami (Ohio) on Sept. 22.

Wegzyn has, for the most part, morphed from a skittish, second-guessing signal-caller into a decisive and confident quarterback as a rookie.

Prior to its debacle last week, UMass had incrementally improved as an offense from week-to-week and showed signs of play-making ability.

“We’ve kind of been developing as a team, especially having a new offense and all these different aspects coming into play,” Wegzyn said. “So I think the biggest thing was getting to know each other and getting a better mesh in between the players on the team.”

And with a new offense brought over by Molnar, the players – experienced ones and inexperienced ones – were forced to go through the growing pains together until they became more comfortable in the system and could start executing out on the field.

“Since we’re already halfway through the season, I think a lot of the guys are getting the offense down pat,” Wegzyn said. “It’s a difficult offense to learn. Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve kind of seen that most people don’t get the offense as a whole until you’ve played a whole year with it, so being this far into it has been the biggest help.”

While the offense has started to click, the defense has suffered one setback after another.

At the beginning of the season, the unit was seen as a lone glimmer of light, forcing three turnovers against the Huskies and allowing 23 points (UConn also scored on an interception and a blocked punt).

But over the past five contests, the Minutemen have allowed over 500 yards of offense in four of those affairs and suffered nearly 600 against Indiana on Sept. 8.

MAC play hasn’t been kind to the UMass defense either, allowing an average of 46.7 points per game against conference foes.

“They’re very high powered offenses,” senior cornerback Darren Thellen said of MAC teams. “So we gotta just come out ready to play. Now we know what to expect so we gotta be more prepared – everyone on defense, including myself.”

Moving forward

Heading into the final half of the season, the Minutemen clearly have some work to do to get on a winning track.

Molnar is confident that his team will continue to progress despite the setbacks it’s had in the past.

“I think as the season goes on, we’ll become a better football team,” he said. “We’re gonna be healthier, our guys are getting more and more assignment-sound, understand what the expectations are and I just look for bigger and better things as the year goes on.”

UMass has tests at Vanderbilt, Northern Illinois and Akron remaining on its schedule and home tilts against Bowling Green, Buffalo and Central Michigan to round out the year.

Stringing together strong performances towards the end of the year could be critical for the Minutemen moving forward into their second year in the FBS and MAC.

Wegzyn is hoping the team can build some momentum heading into the offseason.

“I hate to look that far ahead when we’ve still got all these games to play, but I think it’ll be huge, especially since we’re coming together so well,” Wegzyn said. “We’re taking big strides each week and obviously we’re really young so these guys are going to be sticking around for a while, including myself, so it’s going to be interesting to see what we can do in the future.”

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