A.J. Doyle’s first start at quarterback for the Massachusetts football team this season didn’t get off to the best of starts.
His second pass of the game was intercepted by Kansas State’s Kip Daily and returned 38 yards for a touchdown to give the Wildcats a 6-0 lead. His stat line read 0-for-2 with an interception.
But Doyle regrouped.
He completed his next seven passes for 74 yards and led the Minutemen into the red zone in each of their next two possessions. The first quarter ended with UMass leading Kansas State on the road 7-6, and it may have been more had Blake Lucas’ 23-yard field goal attempt not been blocked earlier in the quarter.
That was the best Doyle had to offer all night as the Wildcats rallied for 30 unanswered points for a 37-7 win. But Doyle still completed 21 of his 31 pass attempts for 186 yards to go with 37 yards rushing. Were they outstanding numbers? No. But it was by far the best performance a UMass quarterback has had all season.
UMass coach Charley Molnar has said multiple times now that his offense needed a spark. Doyle was just that.
“I feel like we took a step forward at the quarterback position and, all in all, our team is going to be in a good place going forward,” Molnar said in his weekly Mid-American Conference Media Teleconference on Monday.
Even though Doyle threw another interception later in the game, he learned to move on from the first interception and put together a solid half of football, even though Molnar didn’t put Doyle completely at fault for the first pick, anyway.
“Not both of those were on A.J. though,” Molnar said. “Things happen on the field that were beyond his control. Obviously at the end of the day, the interceptions go against him, but there were other people involved in those.”
It was something new for the Minutemen. Neither of Mike Wegzyn’s two starts this season were anything to feel good about, especially in UMass’ loss to Football Championship Subdivision foe Maine at home in Week 2.
Wegzyn has completed less than half of his passes this season and most of the time the offense looked inept. Wegzyn would get rattled under pressure and seemed helpless when his first option wasn’t open, making it difficult to sustain drives under those circumstances.
Doyle, on the other hand, was poised. Found the open man. Could escape the pocket and run if he ran out of options. The type of qualities a young offense needs from its leader.
Based on the results, the starting job is now Doyle’s to lose for the remainder of the season. But I want to see more. Those two interceptions, most notably the one that was returned for a touchdown, still happened. And they can’t happen.
Consistency is a must, too. Doyle was stellar for the second half of the first quarter, but his numbers were mediocre the rest of the way. Seven points per game won’t be acceptable anymore, or else UMass will go winless.
The jury is still out on Doyle. One solid game shouldn’t be enough to convince people that he’s the team’s long-term solution. Right now, he’s still the product of some exceptionally poor play from the quarterback before him.
Don’t forget, he only completed 12 of his 24 pass attempts for 101 yards and just one score in three quarters of play in UMass’ first two games. He’s still near the bottom among quarterbacks in the MAC. His accuracy could still be better, too.
But there’s still hope. Doyle has already looked like a significant upgrade over Wegzyn in the last six quarters. Most importantly, he seems to have a good connection with the Minutemen’s receivers, particularly Tajae Sharpe.
Since Doyle started the second half against the Black Bears, Sharpe has made 13 catches for 116 yards and a touchdown – he had a career-high 98 receiving yards on nine catches on Saturday.
It’s still too early to deem Doyle the savior of the UMass offense. However, positive steps were made on Saturday.
If we see an even better Doyle by next week, or even three weeks from now (by the way, better means multiple touchdown passes and maybe a shot at some wins), then the Minutemen might have their answer.
If not, then it might be someone else’s turn.
Nick Canelas can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @NickCanelas.