UMass front seven steps up in Saturday’s victory over Florida International

By Anthony Chiusano

Shannon Broderick/Daily Collegian
Shannon Broderick/Daily Collegian

It wasn’t pretty, but the Massachusetts football team escaped Saturday’s game against Florida International at McGuirk Stadium with its first win of the season, 24-14.

Paving the way for the Minutemen’s sloppy, penalty flag-laden victory on an overcast day that mirrored UMass’ newly-debuted gray alternate jerseys, was an unexpected source: a strong performance from the Minutemen’s front seven and its injury-depleted defensive line.

The Minutemen (1-3) defense recorded three sacks and applied timely pressure on Panthers (2-3) quarterback Alex McGough en route to limiting FIU to 188 total yards on offense and picking up a UMass offense that was plagued by missed opportunities early and often Saturday afternoon.

The Minutemen entered Saturday’s matchup without starting nose tackle Robert Kitching and starting defensive end Sha-Ki Holines, to go along with the limited play of defensive back Kelton Brackett (nursing a knee injury) and Tuesday’s news that starting free safety Khary Bailey-Smith would miss the remainder of the season (knee).

Starting fullback/tight end Rodney Mills and blocking tight end Brandon Howard also donned street clothes and missed Saturday’s game due to injury.

But senior linebackers John Robinson-Woodget (a team-high nine tackles, one sack) and Jovan Santos-Knox (six tackles, one sack) led the way while a makeshift defensive line often consisting of a combination of linebackers Trey Seals and Kassan Messiah, and defensive linemen Enock Asante and Peter Angeh utilized a mix of speed and physicality to make up for a lack of prototypical size.

“Those guys have nothing but heart,” Santos-Knox said about the defensive line’s performance against FIU. “I’ve said it, these guys are tremendous players and they fight every single play. They might be undersized but you can’t test someone’s heart by just looking at them. These guys fought very hard the entire game and everyone had a great game.”

He added: “We also were physical so it wasn’t just speed. I’m proud of everyone up front because they answered the call.”

The UMass defense as a whole forced eight punts and held the Panthers to 5-of-15 on third down conversions. Getting off the field has been a bit of an issue for the unit to start the season, and just last week against Notre Dame, the Fighting Irish converted on 8-of-13 third downs.

Santos-Knox said Saturday’s execution on defense was “exciting” to see and proves beneficial moving forward, no matter the injury situation.

“We had a game plan coming in and we executed it,” Santos-Knox said. “To force as many punts as we did and to have all the different people step up as they did, it’s incredible and it shows how resilient this team is.”

UMass coach Mark Whipple said that the defensive line’s shorthanded pieces all had an encouraging week of practice heading into the matchup with the Panthers, which gave him confidence in the unit.

“We were having a hard time on offense moving it, so I felt pretty good that those guys would be able to stop the run like they did,” Whipple said. “Did I know it would happen that way? No, not really. But those guys have hung together and we had a good week of practice and I think it really showed up on the field today.”

Whipple added that he expects both Kitching and Holines to return to the lineup “soon” to reinforce the defensive line. Kitching practiced on a limited basis last week.

Saturday’s win marked the Minutemen’s first nonconference victory in the program’s Football Bowl Subdivision history.

“We had a lot of close ones in the time I’ve been here but it feels good to get it done our senior year,” Santos-Knox said. “It’s a great feeling.”

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