It was a play Trey-Dudley Giles would probably rather not watch again.
With the game scoreless and 4:43 left in the first quarter, Vanderbilt quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels took the snap on first-and-10, and faked a handoff to running back Jerron Seymour. Massachusetts safety Khary Bailey-Smith bit on the fake and left Dudley-Giles in single coverage against Commodores receiver Jonathan Krause.
Dudley-Giles was no match.
Expecting safety help, the cornerback was a step behind Krause on a deep post pattern and Carta-Samuels found him in the end zone for a 42-yard touchdown pass to give Vanderbilt a 7-0 lead that it would not relinquish on Sept. 21 at Gillette Stadium.
“The corners have to be in the right position and the safeties have to be in the right position and it’ll eliminate the quarterback even anticipating throwing the ball at us,” Dudley-Giles said.
Those are the types of situations that have hurt the UMass secondary all season. The Minutemen have allowed touchdown passes of over 40 yards five times in just four games this season, and have made correcting these problems a focal point with Mid-American Conference play beginning Saturday at Bowling Green.
“We’ve been working on it each and every week in practice and in the film room so we’re trying to eliminate mistakes by having a safety in the middle so I feel like we’re putting in work,” Dudley-Giles said. “We’re trying to eliminate the big plays and the deep throws.”
This problem has occurred since the very beginning of the season. In the season opener at Wisconsin on Aug. 31, Badgers quarterback Joel Stave connected with Jared Abbrederis for third-quarter touchdowns of 65 yards and 57 yards, beating Dudley-Giles in single coverage in both instances. Two weeks later at Kansas State, UMass was beat on touchdown throws of 43 yards and 50 yards.
Senior safety Devin Brown said the issue with the defense isn’t due to a lack of talent, but “because of blown assignments and missed coverages.”
“Big passing plays, a lot of it has to do with not being where we’re supposed to be,” Brown said. “That’s been really disappointing but we have to improve that, pick that up and from there be better as a unit.”
Despite the struggles preventing big plays, the secondary has been arguably one of the Minutemen’s strengths. The defense has forced seven turnovers this season and four of them have been interceptions.
While UMass has been exceptionally poor defending the run, the Minutemen have allowed 209.8 passing yards per game, which is second best in the MAC.
“I think our secondary is doing a good job,” UMass coach Charley Molnar said. “We’ve gotta eliminate the big play and I really think everyone will see how our secondary has come along in the last year.”
The secondary will get its first chance to establish itself among the best in the MAC when it takes on the Falcons, whose offense is ranked second in the conference led by quarterback Matt Johnson.
Johnson is second in the MAC with 245.8 passing yards per game for six touchdowns and also has the ability to run the ball. Molnar considered him “a cut above” many of the dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation and will provide a significant test for the defense.
The Minutemen’s defensive backfield consists primarily of underclassmen, but has constantly gained more experience with Dudley-Giles, Bailey-Smith, Randall Jette and the currently-injured Joe Colton all seeing time as freshmen throughout last season.
With so much youth, UMass expects to only get better at defending the pass as the season goes on.
“We have experience, we played young,” Jette said. “All of us played young so we’ve definitely got experience. I just like our work ethic and determination. We’re not happy with coming close to winning, we’re not happy with almost making big plays. We want the big plays. We’re all greedy in the secondary. We all want to be the one to make that play.”
Nick Canelas can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @NickCanelas.