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Cyr: Saturday’s homecoming is UMass football’s most revealing test yet

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Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Dailiy Collegian)

(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Dailiy Collegian)

Make no mistake about it, the Massachusetts football team’s opening two games against Power Five opponents Florida and Boston College gave us a pretty decent idea of what to expect from the Minutemen moving forward.

UMass’ defense has looked better, and much faster, than in previous years, when in open space receivers like Andy Isabella and tight end Adam Breneman can make plays, quarterback Ross Comis has taken a beating the first two weeks – so much so that he wasn’t made available following last Saturday’s loss and Tuesday after practice – the offensive line hasn’t looked good at all and Marquis Young has yet to wow us with a big run.

Oh, and punter Logan Laurent has been as good as advertised. Laurent currently ranks 22nd in the country in punt average (43.9), thanks to his FBS-best 19 punts and 835 punt yards.

But as well as UMass played for three quarters against the Gators, or as poorly as it executed down the stretch against Boston College, the Minutemen’s most revealing test comes Saturday when they make their return back to campus to face Florida International at McGuirk Stadium.

“(McGuirk) is home,” center Fabian Hoeller said. “We practice here everyday. It just feels right. It feels better.”

“There’s nothing like it,” linebacker Steve Casali said. “I love playing at Gillette, but you’re in a rush to get everywhere. This is home. This is McGuirk, everyone is out tailgating and having a good time. It’s our home, it’s nice. It gives you a sense of pride.”

The Golden Panthers (0-2) find themselves in a similar position as UMass, dropping their first two games of 2016 against a pair of Big Ten teams in Indiana and Maryland, by a combined score of 75-27.

FIU quarterback Alex McGough has completed just 50-percent of his passes (28-of-56) for 302 yards, with four interceptions and zero touchdowns. Defensively, the Golden Panthers allow over 240 rushing yards per game to its opponents, a prime window for UMass, FBS’s worst running team, to turn the page on what’s been a bad start to the season.

A year ago, the Minutemen topped FIU 24-14 in their return to McGuirk for their first win of the season. Since joining FBS, UMass is 2-4 in games played on campus.

Although the record might not back it up, playing in their own backyard means one thing to the Minutemen: pride.

“Sometimes it doesn’t really feel like a home game, even though it is a home game,” Hoeller said of playing at Gillette. “(Playing games on campus) I don’t have to hustle right down here, get on the bus and get ready, and then drive two hours to Gillette or the hotel, and then after the game drive two hours back.”

“I can’t wait for this Saturday,” Casali added. “I’ve been waiting for this for a long time. I know we’re going to get this win and I know it’s doing to be a good time. I can’t wait.”

The Minutemen have been tested at the hands of two of the nation’s top three defenses in terms of yards per game. They’ve played in one of the nation’s loudest stadiums, and after a poor showing at Gillette, UMass is hungry.

FIU is still finding its own identity, the Minutemen are at home. And Saturday, against one of their most favorable matchup’s of the season, we’ll see just how talented this young team really is.

So, what’s going to be the vibe if UMass’ loses?

Don’t ask Casali – or anyone else on the Minutemen.

“We are going to win this game,” Casali answered with a straight face. “We will.”

Andrew Cyr can be reached at [email protected], and followed on Twitter @Andrew_Cyr.

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