Massachusetts Daily Collegian

UMass football looks to pull off upset against Mississippi State Saturday

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Christina Yacono/Daily Collegian)

(Christina Yacono/Daily Collegian)

The Massachusetts football team is no stranger to being the clear underdog.

Since its jump up to FBS play in 2012, you would be hard-pressed to find a consistent stretch of games where UMass (1-2) was favored to pull out a victory.

Over the past five seasons, the Minutemen have taken on teams such as Penn State, Notre Dame and Florida, just to name a few. Saturday’s game against Southeastern Conference opponent Mississippi State (1-2, 1-1 SEC) is no different for UMass as the Minutemen are a heavy 24.5 point underdogs to the Bulldogs.

Saturday’s matchup will be the second of three games UMass will play against SEC opponents during the 2016 season.

Minutemen quarterback Andrew Ford made his collegiate debut last weekend against Florida International, throwing for 278 yards and three touchdowns. Most people expect him to get the start again this week with quarterback Ross Comis recovering from injuries that sidelined him last Saturday.

Ford knows UMass will have a large challenge ahead of them taking on Mississippi State, but that won’t affect the team’s preparation going in.

“Mississippi State is a great team. They have a great defense. They’re really well coached,” Ford said. “So we’re just going to have to have even that much better of a week of practice. I don’t think there’s anything I can do differently than preparation from last week. You have to treat every week the same and prepare no matter who you’re playing for the same thing.”

The man on the receiving end of many of Fords passes last Saturday, was old friend and tight end Adam Breneman. Breneman hauled in 10 receptions in the victory and is aware that opponents may key in on him more after his previous performance and he is prepared for that against the Bulldogs.

“They are big, strong and physical and obviously an SEC defense,” Breneman said. “But after 10 catches, I’m assuming (Mississippi State) will be keying in on me a little bit, but that opens some things up for some other guys so they can make some plays. I’m expecting it, definitely.”

A major focus for the Minutemen on the other side of the ball will be slowing down Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald. Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen has always been drawn to dual-threat quarterbacks, whether it was Tim Tebow during his Florida days or more recently Dak Prescott at Mississippi State. Fitzgerald fits that dual-threat mold and he’s had a very strong early portion of the season.

In the passing game, Fitzgerald has thrown for two touchdowns, but it’s been his impact in the running game that has made him a major threat. The redshirt sophomore leads the Bulldogs with 219 rushing yards, averaging 73 yards per game.

UMass coach Mark Whipple understands the importance of containing Fitzgerald.

“They run a lot of the read option, so it’s option football. We’ve got to be assignment sound,” Whipple said. “He’s a good player. We think we’re getting better on defense, but we’re not LSU. We got to try to get him in third down and come after him and get some interceptions.”

Fitzgerald’s backup Damien Williams has seen significant action as well, throwing for 118.5 yards per game and 88 yards on the ground.

With the Minutemen coming off their first win, confidence is high around the team. Despite their high spirits, they know there is little margin for error on Saturday if they want any chance of winning.

“We played Florida International and they are a great team, some mistakes were made against them and we won’t be able to get away with them against Mississippi State,” Breneman said. “A team like that can flip a game that’s 10-7 to 28-7 in a heartbeat. The margin of error is really small, but it’s a good test for us.”

Ford knows it’s going to take a lot to pull off the upset.

“We know we have to play our best game of the year this week against Mississippi State to have a chance,” Ford said. “They’re a great football team. It’s going to take our best. We’re going to have to be firing on all cylinders to have a chance.”

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

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