Both Tennessee and the Massachusetts football team will enter Saturday’s game in Knoxville, Tennessee looking for redemption.
The Volunteers hope to redeem the final seconds of their loss to Florida, a game that ended with a Gators Hail Mary. The University of Massachusetts is looking to redeem the entire start to its season.
The Vols (2-1, 0-1 Southeastern Conference), undoubtedly upset following last week’s loss to Florida, will look to bury the Minutemen (0-4) early, making a fast start essentially imperative.
“We know that we can’t win the game in the first quarter but we can certainly put ourselves behind or lose it,” quarterback Andrew Ford said. “So, the first 15 minutes are going to be huge, we got to try to neutralize that crowd the best we can and not put ourselves in too big of a hole like we did last year against South Carolina.”
In UMass’ 34-28 loss to the Gamecocks last season, South Carolina jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter. The lead soon became 27-7 in the second.
On paper, it’s no question that the Minutemen are severely outmatched by Tennessee. But as the past has shown, particularly last season, UMass can hold its own with SEC teams.
Florida, South Carolina and Mississippi State all defeated UMass, but the Minutemen were within a touchdown at some point in the fourth quarter in all three of the games.
Coach Mark Whipple is hoping that the Neyland Stadium atmosphere does not prove to be distraction, especially to the team’s freshmen players.
“It’s honestly more South Carolina and Florida because you’re on the road,” Whipple said. “I know with the silent count and things that way and communication issues. We got some freshmen that we got to be careful with that haven’t been in that environment. A lot of the time those guys look around instead of play. We’ll walk through the stadium on Friday.”
UMass’ defense has been its most consistent and arguably brightest feature in the first four weeks. Despite not having a turnover since the first quarter of the Minutemen’s opening game against Hawaii, Ed Pinkham’s defensive squad will have to hold Vols quarterback Quinten Dormady and co. in check if UMass has any shot.
Much of the defense’s success could ride on how productive the offense is and especially how long they can stay on the field.
“Our defense has been fighting for us all year and they’ve had our back,” Ford said. “It’s our job to return the favor. They’ve been keeping us in these games and we have to execute. I definitely take that on myself to be able to not only extend drives to give them a break but to put points on the board. So it’s definitely something we stress, we have to have a little bit longer drives, we have to build. We were able to move the ball pretty successfully against Temple, had some extended drives and hope to keep that rolling this week.”
Sha-Ki Holines returned from injury for the Minutemen last week against Temple and will provide Da’Sean Downey, Ali Ali-Musa and Bryton Barr with significant help at the line of scrimmage.
“Turnovers would be great for us,” Holines said. “It would help the offense, it will help us get good field position honestly. It helps us get some quick points on the board. It’ll get some momentum on our side.
“We’re right there, right there I feel like. We’re waiting to get that one play that’s going to set us off for the rest of the season.”
Currently considered 27.5 point underdogs according to ESPN, most don’t see the game ending any other way than with a Tennessee win and a UMass loss. Ford doesn’t let this change his approach and Whipple agrees.
“I don’t know, we’ve been trying to win,” Whipple said. “The guys are playing hard, we gave a great effort so I don’t think that changes. There are certain things, your point of attack on offense with a silent count and the communication in the backend and on defense, that’s some of the things. It’s an important game, it is a big game and we certainly know how good they are. I’m sure everybody watched it and we watched them on tape, they have great players. We have to go down and play our best game without question. We haven’t even come close so that’s a disappointing thing, but the good thing is that we’ve got two thirds of the season left.”
Philip Sanzo can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Philip_Sanzo.