UMass football seeks consistency as important week of practice looms

By Mark Chiarelli

(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Daily Collegian)
(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Daily Collegian)

A repetitive mantra surrounding the Massachusetts football team this season is that stringing together quality, consistent practices creates stronger results.

But it wasn’t until Saturday – when UMass downed Kent State 40-17 to earn its first win of 2014 – that the Minutemen finally saw a return on their investments.

Gone are the moral victories and small building blocks of improvement. UMass now has a tangible result – a victory – to validate what coaches and players have repeated for weeks: that the Minutemen are both learning how to practice at a high level and improving as a team.

Now, UMass embarks on a week of practice aiming to prepare well enough to string together another victory against Eastern Michigan this Saturday.

“This is a big week for us,” linebacker Kassan Messiah told reporters Monday night.

Messiah was singled out by Minutemen coach Mark Whipple as a player who made strides in practice and translated it into strong play on the field. Last Wednesday, Messiah blocked a field goal in practice. And against Kent State, Messiah blocked a field goal in the game in what was described as a very similar play.

Messiah’s special teams triumph preserved a 10-point UMass lead in the fourth quarter, and provided the Minutemen enough momentum to close out the win. He also led the team with 10 tackles in his most consistent performance of the season.

“It was a great play,” Messiah said of his field goal block. “I was satisfied with the fact I got a chance to get one in practice and then carry it over to the game. It was a great coaching point for me and my teammates, that what we do in practice carries over to the game.”

Whipple’s said in the past that in order to earn his trust, a player must practice well throughout the week. It’s been an ongoing process – he noted Monday night that the team had a “really good” practice earlier in the day – and one that’s improving as the season progresses.

Even when the team lost its first six games of the season, the Minutemen kept at it in the eyes of their head coach.
“I don’t think these guys have totally lacked confidence,” Whipple said. “I think they see the things that they’ve learned and they’re learning how to practice better.”

Following Saturday’s victory, UMass running back Lorenzo Woodley attributed his quality performance to a strong week of practice that prior week. Woodley rushed for 160 yards on 23 carries in a powerful performance and showcased his overall talent for the first time in 2014.

Woodley, who has battled injuries and ineffectiveness in his first two years at UMass, again credited his practice regimen Monday. He said that if he continues to run hard in practice, he expects “the same or similar results” as his 160-yard performance.

The sophomore back also noted that he can’t allow himself to become complacent.

“You have to come ready to work each and every day,” Woodley said. “Like coach (Marcel) Shipp tells me, what makes a good running back is the way they practice, because it shows in game time. The way you practice throughout the week pays off game time and you put it on the field.”

Whipple said that the in order to build off this victory in practice, the team needs an “attitude” and a certain amount of leadership.
“I think it just comes back down to practice,” Whipple said. “You can’t go backward this week in practice.”

Messiah said the team is slowly changing its culture during practice and is learning how to finish with the same intensity it starts with, something he credited as a significant reason as to why the team finally earned a victory.

“I think that was something we struggled with,” Messiah said of finishing practices with less energy than when they start.
“We changed that culture this week. Guys held each other more accountable because we realized that guys playing games like that would not win, as we could see.”

Whipple cautiously pointed out there’s room for improvement across the board – something the team will work on this week in preparation for the Eagles. As a coach, he said he must strike the chord between not being overly critical following a victory, but that “there’s no ticker tape parade in Amherst because we won a game.”

“We gotta pay a little more attention to detail,” he said. “We did what we had to do to win, but there were a lot of warts there that we have to clean up.”

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