There’s a bye week in sight and Mid-American Conference play to follow, but Massachusetts football coach Charley Molnar’s only focus after Wednesday’s practice was to grab a cup of coffee and go over practice film.
His team is on the last leg of a grueling non-conference schedule that’s included the defending Big Ten and Big 12 champions, and the Minutemen hope to end it with a non-conference win when they host upstart Southeastern Conference opponent Vanderbilt on Saturday at noon at Gillette Stadium.
UMass (0-3) is coming off arguably its most encouraging outing of the season, but it still ended in a 37-7 rout at the hands of Kansas State. Much of the reason for such optimism revolves around the offense, particularly the play of quarterback A.J. Doyle.
The sophomore made his first start of the season on Saturday and finished the game a solid 21-for-31 for 186 yards and led the Minutemen to a 7-6 advantage after the first quarter.
Between the play of Doyle, whom Molnar has named the starter going forward, and a career-best 81 yards and first-career rushing touchdown from redshirt freshman Stacey Bedell, Molnar likes the direction of his offense, which currently ranks last in the nation in points per game (7.0) and 117th out of 123 teams in total offense.
“The whole key to our success is to be balanced and I thought last week we showed the signs of having a more balanced attack,” Molnar said. “As that continues to grow it’ll take some of the attention off Stacey and it’ll be a little harder to load the box against us if we demonstrate that we can effectively throw the ball down the field.”
The offense could be aided on Saturday by the return of senior captain and tight end Rob Blanchflower. Blanchflower, the Minutemen’s leading receiver from last year, has missed the entire regular season with a pair of undisclosed injuries, but he returned to the practice field this week, although in a limited capacity, and is a game-time decision for Saturday.
The Commodores (1-2, 0-2 SEC) are the first SEC team that UMass has ever hosted. The last seven national champions have come from the SEC, although Vanderbilt has been an annual bottom-dweller throughout most of the programs history.
However, these aren’t your grandfather’s Commodores. They’ve been on the rise since coach James Franklin took over two seasons ago. He led the program last year to the most wins in a season (nine) – including a 49-7 blowout victory over UMass in Nashville, Tenn. – since 1915 and its first winning record in the conference since 1982.
Molnar could draw some similarities to the way Franklin had to rebuild his respective program when he took over as coach.
“They’re a football program that’s hungry, they play hard, they believe in themselves and that’s the key to a program growing and I think we have the same things going on here right now at the same time,” Molnar said. “They’re a little bit more advanced than we are, so be it, but they’re certainly going to be a bowl team.”
Vanderbilt may have graduated offensive weapons Jordan Rodgers at quarterback and tight end Zac Stacy, but it does have its star receiver Jordan Matthews, who leads the team with 24 receptions for 395 yards and two touchdowns.
“There’s only a few corners in the country that can really just match up and lock him down all day long,” Molnar said. “We don’t have that guy, so we’ll have to use a variety of ways to try to limit his big play potential.”
As 32.5-point underdogs, according to Covers.com, the Minutemen certainly have a major challenge ahead. And going up against an SEC foe, they expect nothing but high-caliber play on both sides of the ball.
“Everyone kind of knows that the SEC has more speed, kind of like we knew Wisconsin was a Big Ten team, so we knew they were gonna be big and physical,” Doyle said.
“They’re a good team once again,” Doyle added. “They’re gonna be a bowl team and they’re an SEC football team, so they’re gonna be fast.”
Nick Canelas can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @NickCanelas.