Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

UMass football’s defense has turned a corner behind Da’Sean Downey’s stellar play

(Daily Collegian Archive)

After an ugly 38-28 loss to Coastal Carolina on Sept. 2, the University of Massachusetts football team appeared to have reached a low point.

Coming up unsuccessfully against a freshly-minted Football Bowl Subdivision program in CCU, UMass (0-5) looked stagnant on the defensive side of the ball, surrendering 401 total yards of offense with an alarming 321 of those yards coming from Coastal’s rushing attack.

Added in the fact that the Minutemen allowed an identical 38 points –albeit to a better team—in Hawaii a week before, the UMass defense could not seem to keep up with the opposition’s offensive schemes.

Just when it looked like the flood gates would open, the Minutemen defense stepped up the following week, despite a down performance from the offense, in UMass’ 17-7 loss to Old Dominion Sept. 9.

That strong performance from the Minutemen defense was the spark they desperately needed. Just two weeks after ODU, the Minutemen let up only 17 points to Tennessee, a marquee program.

Although the record has not improved, in the couple of games since then, UMass has given up a combined 34 points in those two games. The defense looks to have broken free of the struggles that impaired the Minutemen in the beginning of their season.

“All [the] guys got to stay in your gap, can’t freelance, and that happened a lot, obviously in the Coastal Carolina game,” UMass coach Mark Whipple said. “[The] guys learned a lot, they’ve been coachable and we’ve made improvements.”

Senior defensive lineman Da’Sean Downey was paramount to that turnaround.

The 6-foot-4, 230-pound pass-rusher has seen his numbers improve steadily from that contest against ODU, registering 20 tackles – including a season-high of eight against Old Dominion—and 1.5 sacks, in the Minutemen’s previous three games.

“I just feel like everybody’s buying into the defense,” Downey said. “Executing before, like [in] the first two games, it was more like somebody wasn’t doing their job so the next person thought they had to do something else. Then they got out of their gap and that’s when we let up big plays. I feel like everybody is 100 percent committed and they trust the person next to them to do the job.”

“He’s our best defensive player, I’d say he and Bryton Barr,” Whipple said. “He’s a guy that’s smart. We can move him around, he can play defensive end, he can play outside linebacker. We can move him in some hybrid positions, try to get him matched up on maybe a [running back] in the pass rush game.”

Downey also holds 6.5 tackles for a loss of yards, which ranks the White Plains, New York native No. 16 in FBS. That game-changing ability is an aspect UMass has relied on and will continue to rely on, maybe more so, moving forward.

“He can be, he has been” Whipple said. “He was last year until he got knicked up. He’s a little healthier, he’s healthier this week than he was last week. We need him to get a tip ball. He knocked the ball down, almost intercepted it [at Tennessee]. It was on a screen pass. Like I said, he’s smart and he’s been playing well so we need for him to have a big game Saturday against Ohio.”

Although the Minutemen haven’t exactly performed up to par offensively in the last three games, Downey doesn’t let that bother him.

“It’s not too frustrating because the offense has put us in a lot of games to win, and it was us, on the other end, that was struggling,” Downey said. “Sometimes we, as a defense, we got to win those games for our team, so it goes hand-in-hand.”

With seven games left in 2017, UMass needs its defense to keep up the air-tight play, making the road to securing that first victory even easier.

“Now that we know how we can play…we set the bar even higher after this last game, so I think we’re prepared,” Downey said.

Ryan Ames can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @_RyanAmes.

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    alumSep 27, 2017 at 2:12 pm

    Well all that money on the stadium, team, coaches, etc. seems well spent………..still a chance to get the first win with 7 games left.