UMass tops Eastern Michigan 36-14, puts together first FBS winning streak

By Mark Chiarelli

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The Massachusetts football team finally has a winning streak for the first time in its FBS tenure.

Backed by impressive individual performances by receiver Tajae Sharpe and running back Shadrach Abrokwah and a stingy defensive performance in the second half, UMass topped Eastern Michigan 36-14 for its second win in as many weeks.

“This was really important for us to get two in a row, to keep it going,” UMass linebacker Jovan Santos-Knox said following the game.

“We always say it’s good to win, but what are you going to do after a win? How are you going to show up after a win? And I think we showed up today,” Santos-Knox said.

The Minutemen showed up indeed.

UMass’ offense stormed through the first half, entering halftime with a commanding 30-14 lead. By the end of the game, Sharpe had a career-high in receiving yards (193) and equaled a career-high in receptions (13). Abrokwah tallied 135 rushing yards and scored four touchdowns. Running back Lorenzo Woodley added 63 yards and a touchdown on the ground as well.

It was the most impressive collective rushing performance from the Minutemen this season.

“I thought (the offensive line) accepted the challenge,” UMass coach Mark Whipple said. “Eastern Michigan probably had the best defensive linemen in the conference.”

On two separate occasions in the first quarter, Abrokwah finished off drives that predominately featured Minutemen quarterback Blake Frohnapfel attacking through the air. UMass scored on its first drive of the game when Abrokwah took a handoff around left tackle for a 17-yard score to make it 7-0.

Eastern Michigan responded on the ensuing drive. Quarterback Reginald Bell Jr. – who entered Saturday’s game off a 202-yard rushing performance a week ago in a victory against Buffalo – engineered a scoring drive which ended on a 32-yard touchdown pass to tight end Tyreese Russell.

But UMass responded, scoring the following two touchdowns on a 16-yard touchdown run by Abrokwah and a 2-yard touchdown run by Woodley to make it 20-7.

Much of the Minutemen’s offensive success predicated around getting Sharpe involved. He had just two catches a week ago against Kent State – who made a conscious effort to double-team him – but faced relaxed coverage against the Eagles. Sharpe took advantage, entering halftime with 150 yards receiving on nine catches.

“We had success running very similar plays there and they really didn’t make an adjustment until halftime,” Frohnapfel said of Eastern Michigan.

Eastern Michigan would narrow the gap to 20-14 midway through the second quarter on a 34-yard touchdown pass from Bell to Bronson Hill, but UMass responded with a scoring drive of its own on the following drive to make it 27-14.

After the offense set the tone in the first half, it was the defense that finished the game for the Minutemen.

The Eagles didn’t score a single point in the second half despite the Minutemen committing three turnovers. Bell, who is a gifted runner and ran for two 70-yard touchdowns against Buffalo last week, rushed for only 40 yards on 21 carries and was 10-of-21 passing. UMass also sacked Bell four times.

“We took it as a personal mission to come out and shut (Bell) down and I think we did,” Santos-Knox said.

Whipple pointed out UMass’ ability to get off the field – it held Eastern Michigan to 2-of-12 on third down conversions and 1-of-3 on fourth down conversions – and said the defense is improving every week.

“I think there was some confidence and they certainly got challenged by the quarterback,” Whipple said. “I think our defense has made a couple big steps. We’re still a work in progress, but we’re getting better.”

For Santos-Knox, who endured two straight 1-11 seasons, the prospects of putting together a winning streak left him giddy after the game.

“It shows how far this program has come,” Santos-Knox said. “It’s just such a great feeling…winning with these guys, they’re the greatest teammates I’ve ever had in my life and it’s just so much fun.”

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