Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Down in the Swamp: UMass football opens season Saturday against No. 25 Florida

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(Alec Zabrecky/Daily Collegian)

Big-time college football on Saturday afternoons is not only a tradition for the people of Gainesville, Florida, its the way of life. Upward of 90,000 fans pack into Ben Hill Griffin Stadium doing the Gators’ signature chomp, while the marching band plays the theme from Jaws and the fight song.

That is the environment the Massachusetts football team will find itself in this Saturday when the Minutemen open their season against No. 25 Florida.

Saturday’s contest will be the first of three games against Southeastern Conference teams this year for UMass, as it will play Mississippi State (Sept. 24) and South Carolina (Oct. 22) later in this season.

The Minutemen are excited for a chance to play on the field known as “The Swamp,” but they are looking to maintain focus going into the game.

“I think we’re all excited, but in the same sense we have to stay focused and look at the task at hand,” Ross Comis said. “We need to go out and prepare as we can and go out and get a W. It’s a big stage, but I think we’re prepared for it.”

Fullback John Robinson-Woodgett, who played linebacker last season and is integrating into a new role on the offense this season, is excited for the opportunity.

“It’s our first game, so I’m excited to go down there,” Robinson-Woodgett said. “They have a lot of tradition and it’ll be good to play against a team like that.”

UMass comes into its season opener with a new-look offense. With the departures of former quarterback Blake Frohnapfel and wide receiver Tajae Sharpe, the Minutemen will be counting on a much less experienced group to lead them offensively in 2016.

One of the new starters will be Comis, who appeared in six games last year, one of which was during the game against Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. In a late-game appearance, the redshirt sophomore went 8-for-8 on passing attempts and threw a touchdown.

UMass coach Mark Whipple has trust that Comis will come out strong Saturday.

“He’s played well. He’s been in the system and been with us for three years now,” Whipple said of Comis, in a teleconference early this week. “I’m sure the Swamp’s a little louder than Notre Dame was when he was in the game in the fourth quarter. He’ll manage the game in the silent count.”

Whipple believes it will be important for the Minutemen to limit the amount of mistakes they make early in the game, as they will be facing one of the top defenses in the country in the Gators.

“We’ve got to get out of the first quarter without giving Florida anything,” Whipple said. “We can’t turn the ball over and give them a cheap score or field position. Let things settle down as the game goes on.”

Despite losing former cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and safety Keanu Neal in the secondary and other starters on defense, Florida returns a veteran group. The Gators are led by Joey Ivie and Caleb Brantley at tackle, Bryan Cox and Cece Jefferson at defensive end, and Jarrad Davis at linebacker, along with Quincy Wilson and Teez Tabor in the secondary.

Tabor will miss Saturday’s game due to a suspension.

“They’re certainly talented,” Whipple said. “They’ve done a good job recruiting at a different level than we’re recruiting. They’re really, really solid everywhere.”

“There’s very little weakness on their defense, so you have to exploit some of the things that we do best,” Comis added.

UMass won’t be the only team going with a new quarterback on Saturday as the Gators will counter with redshirt sophomore Luke Del Rio, who transferred from Oregon State and sat out last season due transfer rules.

“Luke Del Rio’s been around the game long enough and he looked great in the spring game,” Whipple said of the opposing quarterback. “Like with any new quarterback, it’s about the guys around him. And they’ve got plenty, especially with having some seasoned guys on the offensive line.”

The Minutemen know they will be facing an uphill battle to have any chance of winning on Saturday, but that has not affected their preparation going into the game.

Robinson-Woodgett has preached the same message he has all training camp to his teammates this week.

“We preached all camp to just stay together and be a team,” he said. “That’s the only way you can win a football game, not just against Florida, but any team. You have to stay together.”

Adam Aucoin can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @aaucoin34.

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