UMass football falls to Vanderbilt 34-31 in crushing fashion

By Mark Chiarelli

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Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

Members of the Massachusetts football team’s field goal unit stood motionless along the line of scrimmage, heads cocked, peering up at the yellow uprights.

As Vanderbilt players scattered around them in celebration, no amount of staring would change the shocking, sudden outcome of UMass’ 34-31 loss to Vanderbilt on Saturday. One by one, Minutemen players retreated to a bewildered UMass sideline as the immediate reaction to a crushing defeat sank in.

The scapegoat will understandably be Minutemen kicker Blake Lucas, who badly missed a 22-yard field goal on third down with six seconds remaining to cost UMass the game. His chip shot attempt, which missed wide to the left, would have pushed the contest to overtime.

Instead, UMass walked away empty-handed for the third time this season in the most excruciating way yet as it crumbled down the stretch.

“No question, they don’t know how to win,” UMass coach Mark Whipple said of his team. “They want to win but they don’t know how to prepare.”

Lucas’ miscue was most notable, but did not stand alone. The Minutemen bungled a variety of plays down the stretch and allowed yet another 11-point second half lead slip away. Much like last week’s loss to Colorado, UMass led 31-20, and this time carried the lead deep into the fourth quarter.

But much like a quick-fix on a leaky drain, once Vanderbilt poked holes into UMass’ resistance, a flood ensued.

The Commodores’ comeback initiated with eight minutes, 57 seconds remaining. Vanderbilt overloaded UMass on a punt attempt and worked into the backfield, blocking Minutemen punter Brian McDonald’s punt attempt. Commodores outside linebacker Stephen Weathlery scooped up the loose ball along the left sideline and raced into the end zone to cut the lead to 31-26.

Vanderbilt missed the ensuing two-point conversion, but UMass’ offense relented quickly, going three-and-out on its following two drives of the fourth quarter. The Commodores embarked on an offensive drive starting at their own 47-yard line with 2:02 remaining and needed just three plays to take the lead for good.

On first and 10 from the UMass 40, Vanderbilt quarterback Patton Robinnette hit receiver C.J. Duncan for a 36-yard reception down the right sideline. Duncan was covered by UMass corner Randall Jette, who established inside position and leapt for the pass, corralling it into both his hands. But Duncan snatched the ball from Jette as the pair tumbled to the ground and wrestled it away from him.

“I just got outmuscled at the point of attack,” Jette said. “”I would love for it (the ball) to be in my hands at the end of the game. I knew the ball was coming. It’s just definitely a play I should have made.”

“Randall (Jette) had it and the kid just beat him one-on-one,” Whipple said. “One-on-one match-ups is what it comes down to in football and we don’t have enough talent. Our guys that are supposed to be our best players aren’t making enough plays.”

Vanderbilt scored on a 4-yard touchdown run by Ralph Webb on the following play to make it 34-31 with 1:08 remaining.

UMass’ offense had its chance, though. The Minutemen began their final drive on their 40-yard line and maneuvered the ball down the field, using a timely 19-yard connection from quarterback Blake Frohnapfel to Tajae Sharpe on fourth and 4 to keep the drive alive.

The Minutemen worked the ball down to the Vanderbilt 4-yard line after a defensive pass interference. After a first down run by Lorenzo Woodley went nowhere, UMass called timeout with nine seconds remaining. The following play was a Frohnapfel rollout to his right which was designed for receiver Marken Michel, who worked his way open in the flat. But Frohnapfel missed Michel wide.

“(Blake) Frohnapfel has to make some throws,” Whipple said. “You have to make a throw at the end of the game for a touchdown.”

UMass elected to allow Lucas to kick the field goal on third down with six seconds remaining, and suffered a heartbreaking defeat.

The Minutemen entered as double-digit underdogs and left just a single play away from taking an Southeastern Conference opponent into overtime. Somewhere in the middle, UMass outplayed a Commodores squad which led for all of 68 seconds in the contest.

The crushing defeat will overshadow the impressive performance.

UMass took a 14-0 lead on Vanderbilt quickly, scoring on its first drive of the game and running a fake punt in which McDonald instead threw to tight end Rodney Mills, who rumbled in for a 53-yard score. The Minutemen carried a 24-20 lead into halftime.

Starting running back Jamal Wilson left the game with ankle injury in the first quarter and UMass coach Mark Whipple said afterward the back will likely miss the rest of the season. In his place was Lorenzo Woodley, who rushed 22 times for 43 yards and two scores. His miscue in the second quarter – he misplayed a toss and booted it into the end zone – resulted in a Vanderbilt score which made the game 17-13.

Much like last week, UMass will take plenty of positives out of its performance. But a series of late miscues and inability to play with the lead resulted in the Minutemen’s third loss of the season.

“When you give them 14 points on a punt block and a toss sweep that goes right though Lorenzo’s (Woodley) hands for another touchdown, you can’t give a team of this caliber those points,” Whipple said.

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