Matchup with Eastern Michigan presents opportunity for UMass football’s run game

By Anthony Chiusano

Collegian File Photo
Collegian File Photo

Since quarterback Blake Frohnapfel’s arrival in Amherst last season, the Massachusetts football team has transformed into a predominantly pass-first offense that saw a 16-point increase in points per game from 2013 to 2014.

And although this production has dipped slightly this season, UMass still boasts the Mid-American Conference’s third-highest pass offense through nine games. Facing substantial deficits for the majority of the season, the Minutemen have often solely relied on the right arm of Frohnapfel to try to get back into games.

But this Saturday’s game at Eastern Michigan presents UMass (1-8, 0-5 MAC) with a supreme opportunity to finally find success on the ground.

The Minutemen rank 12th out of 13 MAC teams in rushing offense, averaging just 112.6 yards per game. In a battle of struggling units, the Eagles (1-9, 0-6 MAC) enter Saturday’s matchup with the conference’s worst rushing defense, allowing a staggering 329.3 yards per game.

“I think it doesn’t really change your game plan but it’s something you kind of notice while watching film (of Eastern Michigan). You see some things you can possibly do here and there,” Frohnapfel said Tuesday. “Of course, to try to keep a balanced offense, that’s what you have to do.”

In last year’s matchup, a 36-14 UMass victory at Gillette Stadium, the Minutemen thrived on the ground with 231 rushing yards and five touchdowns. Shadrach Abrokwah led the way with four of those touchdowns and 141 yards, both career-highs.

Abrokwah, UMass’ leading rusher last season, has been somewhat a forgotten man in the Minutemen’s running back rotation for most of this year after fumbling in the opening game against Colorado. Since rushing for 56 yards on nine carries against the Buffaloes, the junior from Worcester has had only two carries since, both coming in a loss to Ball State Oct. 31.

However, Abrokwah said he’s been well-prepared in past weeks and is ready to contribute if his number is called upon, especially against an opponent he found great success against just a year ago.

“Coach keeps me in on the reps. I’m still getting reps, I’m still in the playbook, I’m still watching film so all the little things matter right now,” Abrokwah said after Tuesday’s practice.

UMass coach Mark Whipple commended Abrokwah for his recent work in practice and said that, while he’s not sure exactly how much of a factor he will play in Saturday’s game, Abrokwah will have some designed plays.

“He might get some things. He’s ready, those guys are all ready,” Whipple said. “He’s been good since Sekai (Lindsay) got hurt. I’ll watch the tape and maybe he should get more playing time.”

Abrokwah has the fourth-most carries (11) for UMass this season behind freshman Marquis Young (74), senior Jamal Wilson (62) and freshman Sekai Lindsay (34). Lindsay is out for the remainder of the season with an ankle injury.

Wilson didn’t play in last year’s matchup with the Eagles due to a season-ending injury he suffered earlier in the year against Vanderbilt. The senior, who leads the unit with four rushing touchdowns, said he expects getting the run game going will be a major point of focus in Saturday’s offensive play calling.

He added that establishing success on the ground early would open up opportunities for Frohnapfel and the passing game. In last week’s loss to Akron, Frohnapfel’s top two targets in wide receiver Tajae Sharpe and tight end/fullback Rodney Mills were both trapped in double coverage and limited throughout the game.

To avoid similar struggles against the MAC’s second-ranked passing defense in Eastern Michigan, Wilson said the Minutemen must find greater balance on offense.

“We’ve got two obviously great guys with Tajae and Rodney, and with the run game going, it’ll open things even more and maybe force them to bring another guy in the box,” Wilson said. “We’ve got to then take advantage of those one-on-one moments.”

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