Chiusano: UMass must set its sights lower than No. 19 Toledo

By Anthony Chiusano

Jovan Santos-Knox sprints after his opponent. Robert Rigo/ Daily Collegian
Jovan Santos-Knox sprints after his opponent. Robert Rigo/ Daily Collegian

For one half last Saturday against No. 19 Toledo, the Massachusetts football team looked at its best this season, and possibly its finest at any point of the team’s tumultuous four-year history as a Football Bowl Subdivision program.

And then problems of old set in and reality struck.

With countless missed tackles, a couple of failed third down stops and some stagnant offensive drives coming out of the break, UMass’ 28-10 halftime lead quickly evaporated as the Minutemen’s early upset bid became just another footnote in the Rockets’ 51-35 victory at Gillette Stadium.

The loss dropped UMass to 1-6 in a season that began with so many lofty expectations – both internally and externally – and renewed hope entering coach Mark Whipple’s second year of his second tenure at UMass.

On paper, the Minutemen’s 16-point loss to Toledo, a top-20 team nationally and one of the Mid-American Conference’s most dynamic offenses, doesn’t seem bad. The result was expected and not shocking at all.

But the way UMass lost, failing to finish in the second half again, has to be alarming and further proves that the Minutemen are still a ways away from making the proverbial next step up from their first three years near the bottom of the MAC East standings.

“We still haven’t played a complete game,” Whipple said in Saturday’s postgame press conference.

Bowl eligibility is still in reach, though barely for the Minutemen, who need to win out in order to simply be considered for a spot in postseason games. Even if UMass does solve all of its problems and takes care of business down the stretch, it is far from guaranteed a spot.

According to UMass wide receiver Tajae Sharpe, the Minutemen are well aware of the small margin for error concerning their dwindling prospects of reaching a place that’s eluded the program so far in its history.

“We definitely know that, but it’s been our mindset when we entered conference play that it was going to be an uphill fight,” Sharpe said after Saturday’s loss. “We just have to find ways to come out with victories, we have to turn this around and turn these (losses) into wins.”

To say playing in a bowl game is doubtful at this point is obviously a massive understatement. However, the remaining conference schedule provides a bright spot for a team that has already endured the wrath of nonconference foes like Temple and Notre Dame as well as MAC powerhouse offenses like Bowling Green and Toledo.

What is left over is the bottom tier of the MAC, assembled with teams closer to UMass’ skill level as it still struggles to “find a way to win.”

No remaining matchup comes against a team standing in the top-three of its MAC division. Two of these games – against Eastern Michigan and Ball State – are teams that the Minutemen defeated just last season.

Make no mistake – none of these games should be considered definite wins for UMass. That lesson was learned two weeks ago when Kent State, a team the Minutemen easily handled 40-17 last year, stunned UMass and the depleted McGuirk Stadium crowd on homecoming weekend in an ugly 15-10 affair.

However, this final stretch of games will provide a litmus test for exactly where the Minutemen rank within the MAC and if they have made any tangible improvements from last year before losing a crop of key senior pieces and entering dangerous territory in independency.

Following Saturday’s loss to Toledo, Whipple said he was not concerned with UMass’ level of energy and focus coming off another heartbreaking defeat.

This belief will be tested, however, over the Minutemen’s final five games of 2015. With bowl eligibility still scarcely alive and an improvement from last year’s 3-9 record definitely obtainable, UMass must prove it can beat teams that are realistically closer to its own level of play.

Anthony Chiusano can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @a_chiusano24.