Minutemen defense learns from season opener, ready to tackle Boston College

By Kyle DaLuz

Daniel Maldonado/Daily Collegian)
(Daniel Maldonado/Daily Collegian)

The defense of the Massachusetts football team took a strong first step in its season opening debut Saturday night at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

Underdogs by nearly 40 points, UMass (0-1) went into the Swamp and gave the then-ranked No. 25 Gators the feeling that so many Southeastern Conference teams faced in the opening weekend – fear.

The Minutemen gave Florida everything they had before the overall talent and depth of the Gators took over, but not before UMass put the thought of defeat in the minds of Jim McElwain’s unit.

The 24-7 loss on the Minutemen’s schedule may look like a failure to muster any offense in a Florida road game, but considering the opening line of the game and the prognostications of doom heading into Gainesville, the UMass defense impressed not just on paper, and is far superior than originally anticipated.

Edge linebacker Da’Sean Downey made several impact plays in defeat – highlighted by a strip sack of Gator quarterback Luke Del Rio and a critical fourth-and-one stop inside the Minuteman five-yard line.

A high quality performance against a top-25 program in their house is not something that can be understated, especially for a program looking to find its identity as a non-affiliated independent.

“I thought they played hard,” coach Mark Whipple said of his defense Wednesday night following practice. “They played how they’ve been practicing. They did everything really well and we just ran out of a little gas. We had the ball on the ground, we just didn’t get on it. That’s the next step. That’ll really bring a change of momentum – that’s what we need.”

“They played well enough to win the game. I see a real bounce in their step the last two days,” Whipple added.

“It definitely gave us confidence,” Downey said. “We were disappointed because we wanted to go down there and get the win, that’s the main objective. We just took a step and played competitive. We’re happy with the way we competed and now it’s on to BC this week.”

He added: “I think it helps a lot. I don’t think there’s a better environment to play in college football then playing in the Swamp honestly. Playing there in that environment and playing a top-25 team regardless it’s always going to set you up as a team to see where you’re at instead of playing a cupcake team.”

Fellow linebacker Steve Casali is confident that his unit can take what was gained from the opener and apply it to the coming week’s contest.

“It helped our confidence, but we built our confidence this summer,” Casali said of playing in Gainesville. “We just had a really good camp. We had that confidence going into the game. Personally as a defense we felt we could have played better but we’ll carry that over to BC.”

“Florida’s big, strong and fast. BC’s the same way – they’re a physical football team. The main thing we have to focus on is ourselves. Having a great week of practice like coach (Whipple) wants us to do and just being prepared for it.”

Boston College opens up as 16.5-point favorites this Saturday coming off a three-point loss to Georgia Tech in Dublin, Ireland last weekend – falling for the 10th consecutive time in Atlantic Coast Conference play.

It wasn’t all bad for the Eagles, though. Running back Jon Hilliman rushed for 102 yards on 17 carries, including a long 73-yard touchdown scamper in the 17-14 defeat. It is more probable than not that the ground game will being a talking point for Whipple and his coaches during their preparation for BC this week.

A Massachusetts rivalry between the state’s premier programs has not been as such in recent years, with the Minutemen failing to best the Eagles for nearly 40 years – the last coming in 1978.

When asked if BC is just another game, Downey said, “I think there’s a little more to it. I know they don’t see it as a rivalry or whatever, but we’re ready. It’s a just a game but we’re ready. That’s all that needs to be said”

“They’re real physical. That’s what they want to do, they want to wear you down. We’ve been preparing. We’re going to let the play talk on Saturday.”

Kyle DaLuz can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @KyleDaLuz.