UMass football opens season as heavy underdogs at Wisconsin

By Nick Canelas

The Massachusetts football team may be the biggest Week 1 underdog of any Football Bowl Subdivision team in the country, but it doesn’t mean its goal is different from any other program.

No. 23 Wisconsin hosts the Minutemen on Saturday at noon as 44.5-point favorites, according to BetOnline.com, at Camp Randall Stadium as both teams kick off their respective 2013 seasons.

The Badgers have won three consecutive Big Ten conference championships and have participated in the Rose Bowl in each of those years, while UMass is coming off an abysmal, 1-11 inaugural FBS campaign.

Photo by Maria Uminski

Given the state of both programs, the numbers certainly speak for themselves. However, it doesn’t mean UMass coach Charley Molnar expects anything less than a victory.

“(Our goal is) to go out there to win a football game,” Molnar said in his MAC conference call Monday. “We’re certainly not going out there with any other thought in mind. We are going out there to play our very best and play as close to perfect football as we can.

“(Wisconsin is) awfully good – they’ve been to the last three Rose Bowls so it’s certainly a great program,” Molnar added. “We’re going to give them our best shot and I certainly think that our guys are going to step up to that challenge.”

That challenge will be much greater than originally expected, though. The Minutemen will be without star tight end and captain Rob Blanchflower, who was ruled out this week after missing most of fall camp with a pair of undisclosed injuries, and projected starting running back Jordan Broadnax, who suffered a knee injury earlier in camp.

UMass will instead start Ricardo Miller, a fifth-year transfer from Michigan who has never caught a collegiate pass, at tight end and speedy redshirt freshman Stacey Bedell at running back.

Whether or not Blanchflower could play on Saturday if necessary is unclear. But given the low likelihood of the game being close with or without the Minutemen’s starting tight end, it appears Molnar has his team’s big picture goals in mind.

“I don’t set expectations right now in terms of wins and losses,” Molnar said. “I have a number in my mind that I think we can attain if everything goes right, but really we just want to continue to build our foundation and take that process another step.”

Said Molnar of Blanchflower: “I certainly don’t want to rush him back. We have a long season ahead of us.”

Wisconsin will be the third Big Ten team UMass has played since joining the FBS last season – the Minutemen battled and lost convincingly to both Indiana and Michigan – and the first nationally ranked foe since taking on the then-No. 17 Wolverines on Sept. 15, 2012. The Minutemen were 45.5-point underdogs for that contest and lost, 63-13.

However, Molnar expects a much better team to take the field than the one that got walloped at the Big House last year.

“Any time you have the chance to play a Big Ten team, it’s awfully exciting for the young men,” Molnar said. “I think our team is going to be better prepared to go into that type of environment than they were a year ago.

“I think playing at Michigan was a great experience for our guys; playing in front of a crowd of that size and are now perhaps more used to that. I know it’s going to get loud and we will be playing a good football team, but that’s what we are trying to do – measure ourselves against the best teams in the country.”

Like UMass, the Badgers are going through a transition of their own.

Wisconsin begins a new era under Gary Andersen, who will introduce a new starting running back, a new base defense and the results of a quarterback competition on Saturday, after former coach Bret Bielema left for Arkansas at the end of last season.

With the graduation of star back Montee Ball, senior James White will take over as the Badgers’ primary back, although Melvin Gordon could be primed for a breakout sophomore campaign.

Who will be handing them the ball has been the unknown throughout camp. But it appears sophomore Joel Stave – who started six games last year before breaking his collarbone – has reportedly beat out senior Curt Phillips for the job and will get the nod at quarterback on Saturday.

The Minutemen will also be the first team to see Wisconsin’s new 3-4 scheme under defensive coordinator Dave Aranda.

Regardless of what UMass is up against, Molnar is confident in what his team will bring on Saturday, certainly more confident than he was just 12 months prior.

“Going into our first game, we are a more confident team than we were a year ago,” Molnar said. “We are playing harder and playing together. We are still young in several spots and will play a lot of true freshmen again this year just like last season, but I see good things coming up.”

Nick Canelas can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @NickCanelas.