Massachusetts Daily Collegian

UMass football seeing improvement on both the offensive and defensive lines

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(Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian)

(Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian)

The Massachusetts football team has shown significant improvement at the skill positions this season, and now it’s time for those in the trenches to follow suit.

UMass played its most complete game on both the offensive and defensive lines in Saturday’s 36-14 victory over Eastern Michigan. The Minutemen controlled possession, moved the ball effectively and contained a potentially explosive Eagles offense, which was led by quarterback Reginald Bell Jr., for the entire game.

And after two days of digesting and analyzing game film, both players and coaches acknowledged it was an impressive performance on both offense and defense.

“It was their best game of the year,” UMass coach Mark Whipple said of the defensive line. “They played solid and they accepted the challenge to try and corral Bell and they did a good job.”

“I thought we were firing on all cylinders,” senior defensive tackle Daniel Maynes said. “We were making plays, making an impact. We did a good job pressuring (Bell), we did a good job containing him.”

The Minutemen sacked Bell four times, held him to just 40 rushing yards and nearly doubled Eastern Michigan in terms of total yardage. The performance was a far cry from the beginning of the season, when a youthful UMass defensive line was bullied by Boston College in a 30-7 loss in the season opener.

Maynes focused particularly on the defensive line’s ability to contain Bell, who has a tendency to scramble when plays break down. The Eagles didn’t generate much success running the read option.

The performance was a confidence booster for a unit that endured its fair share of growing pains, according to Maynes.

“I think we needed this one to at least show ourselves we can dominate a game,” Maynes said. “I don’t think we’ve done that this year and I think this is the first time we really dominated a game for a long stretch of time.”

Maynes is the defensive line’s elder statesmen. He’s one of three seniors on the team and starts at nose tackle in the team’s 3-4 defense. The Minutemen start a redshirt freshman (Sha-Ki Holines) and a sophomore (Peter Angeh) at defensive end and rotate in multiple other underclassmen at the position.

“We have a lot of freshmen, sophomores playing for the first time extensively,” Maynes said. “They just have to learn on the fly … it’s the only way you can learn, to get thrown into the fire.”

Across the ball, the offensive line is making strides, as well.

UMass struggled mightily to run the ball at the beginning of the season but churned out an impressive rushing attack against Eastern Michigan. The Minutemen rushed for a season-high 225 rushing yards and all five of their touchdowns came via rushing the football.

“We actually take a lot of pride in that now,” offensive guard Fabian Hoeller said. “We worked last week so hard on our running game. It took some time, actually a little bit too much time, but we’re finally where we want to be.”

Hoeller said the offensive line worked in conjunction with tight ends and fullbacks to better understand how to handle opposing linebackers and defensive linemen who stunt and blitz them. He also said that he and his teammates watched “a lot more tape” in the week leading up to Saturday’s win.

“I see those guys gaining confidence,” Whipple said while pointing out the team is playing to its skillsets better.

Two weeks ago, UMass running back Lorenzo Woodley rushed for 160 yards and a touchdown against Kent State. Against the Eagles, it was Shadrach Abrokwah who ran for 135 yards and four touchdowns.

The stronger running game is ultimately providing a more balanced offense and the Minutemen now have two wins to show for it.

“It feels a lot better if you win,” Hoeller said. “You go with a better feeling to practice. I sleep better. You wake up with a good feeling, you go to bed with a good feeling. It makes the work easier.”

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

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