Chiarelli: UMass can’t squander Saturday’s ‘must win’ affair

By Mark Chiarelli

(Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian)
(Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian)

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Massachusetts football linebacker Jovan Santos-Knox dutifully sat just behind a single microphone.

Hunched over and gazing straight ahead, his eyes locked into a space somewhere behind a room full of reporters. Dazed and beaten, he searched for answers and tried to explain the thorough 48-7 thumping UMass endured at the hands of Penn State just minutes ago.

The Minutemen have the art of difficult losses down to a science by now. With each and every loss – they’re up to 26 now in the FBS era – comes more pain and more questions. At some point, this situation will culminate at a boiling point.

And that point of culmination will come Saturday against Bowling Green.

The importance of Saturday’s 3 p.m. affair at McGuirk Stadium – the first game in Amherst since UMass’ jump to FBS – wasn’t lost on Santos-Knox.

(Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian)
(Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian)

“In my eyes, it’s a must win,” he said confidently.

For a team with two wins in two seasons, it’s an obvious statement. The Minutemen ache for a taste of victory and any competitive game falls under the must win category. But Saturday’s return to Amherst strikes a significant chord throughout every faction of the program.

It’s a chance for UMass to earn back the support of the students. It’s a chance to validate the sound bites we’ve heard for months about the improvement level of the team. It’s a chance to finally show, instead of tell, that things are different now.

It’s a chance to show the Minutemen football product is worth giving a damn about.

When UMass tripped over itself down the stretch to Vanderbilt last weekend, the loss generated a significant amount of buzz throughout campus, primarily from students – or shall I say, fans – majoring in deprecating sarcasm. And when the Minutemen gave Colorado a legitimate scare the previous Saturday, the result was met with equal amounts of shock and surprise.

The indifference regarding football throughout the student body stems from blissful ignorance. Students don’t know what they don’t see – and outside of the final two minutes against Vanderbilt – students aren’t watching UMass play, as the woeful Gillette Stadium attendance levels indicate.

Frankly, the students don’t care either. The conversation regarding UMass football isn’t whether it lost, but by how much.

And that’s not fair.

It’s impossible to quantify the Minutemen’s improvement this season without introducing moral victories, something no player on the roster seems particularly interested in discussing. And that’s important, because last year that wasn’t the case.

“We know we can win every game we go into if we play our football,” Santos-Knox said.

“Last year, the year before, we didn’t have that confidence going into the (Mid-American Conference) saying, ‘Oh, we’re going to win every game.’ We came into it just (saying), ‘hopefully, we come out making it close.’ We expect to win here now. This is a changed program 100 percent. We don’t just try to stay in the game anymore, we try to win.”

This UMass team doesn’t have the slightest clue how to win, but it thinks it does. And it’s angry when it doesn’t. That’s a radical change from the days under former coach Charley Molnar, who sucked the life out of his team like a leech.

(Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian)
(Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian)

The Minutemen enjoy playing football with each other again and compete. Combined with advanced offensive strategy and a renewed invigoration, UMass trudged through one of the toughest non-conference schedules in America and came out a better team because of it.

Now, it has a chance to prove it, at home, against one of the toughest teams in the MAC.

The company line following the loss to Penn State centered on the Minutemen’s MAC conference title and bowl dreams remaining intact. It’s a tall order, but the importance of winning against the Falcons this Saturday reigns supreme.

UMass won’t have a better atmosphere this season – maybe ever again. It has a golden opportunity to earn back the support of students and reignite fans, to make do on promises of a new team and a stronger product in front of a passionate crowd.

The students will show Saturday, if for no other reason than a chance to tailgate and finally see what football at McGuirk Stadium truly means. It’s up to the Minutemen to keep their attention and turn promises into results and keep fans planted in the bleachers.

“I think we’re going to be ready,” Santos-Knox said.

“We’re definitely a lot farther than we were my last two years here and I think we’re going to be a lot more prepared and ready for the MAC. We’re ready to take this thing head on.”

Mark Chiarelli can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Mark_Chiarelli.