The last three weeks of the Massachusetts football team’s season could be viewed in terms of levels. Levels of difficulty, that is.
Week Eight against Georgia Southern marked the Minutemen’s first win, a fairly swift 55-20 victory against a struggling Eagles team. In Week Nine, the difficulty jumped up. UMass went from playing one of the worst teams in the Sun Belt conference to its best, Appalachian State. It took two overtimes, but the Minutemen won that one as well, 30-27.
The challenge, exponentially increasing each week, will reach its peak when the Minutemen travel down to Starkville, Mississippi this Saturday to take on Mississippi State, which is ranked 16th in the College Football Playoff rankings.
UMass has crossed paths with the Southeastern Conference team before. The Bulldogs made a stop at Gillette Stadium in 2016, where the Minutemen made things interesting but ultimately fell 47-35.
These are not the same Bulldogs, though, and the odds of UMass matching its point total from last year are slim given that Mississippi State (6-2, 3-2 SEC) has greatly improved its defense. Take out the beatings that Bulldogs experienced at the hands of Auburn and Georgia, and the Mississippi State defense has allowed less than 10 points on average (9.8).
“They definitely work hard to stop the run. We respect them but don’t fear them, obviously,” running back Marquis Young said. “They definitely have a real good team and trying to stop the run and I’ve been paying attention to the safeties and the linebackers. They definitely have some good players this year.”
Young put together one of his best performances of 2016 against the Bulldogs, rushing for 125 yards and scoring a touchdown on a long 83-yard play.
At the time, Young’s monster rush gave the Minutemen a 7-3 lead. Young’s big-play ability was put on display again vs. Appalachian State.
On UMass’ very first offensive play following the injury to Andrew Ford, Marquis Young burst through a hole to his left and cruised 95 yards and into the end zone.
“Both times were really good,” coach Mark Whipple said of Young’s 83-yard run last year and 95-yard run last week. “Last year it went from ‘we cannot play with these guys’ to ‘we have a chance.’ And last week it was after Andrew was down and the defense did a good job on the stop. Then he popped a 95-yarder to give us the lead so that gives everybody confidence when you see one of your teammates make a big play like he did.”
Young’s touchdown run was only one of multiple confidence building moments in the Minutemen’s win over the Mountaineers. However, Mississippi State is not Appalachian State, and according to linebacker Bryton Barr, UMass needs to remember that.
“Oh, we’ll be focused for sure, everyone in that locker room knows that Mississippi State is a better team than Appalachian State played last week. I think they’re 16 in the country right now,” Barr said. “We’re playing one of the best teams in the whole country so we’ll be locked in for sure.”
The Minutemen are going up against one of the nation’s top quarterbacks. Nick Fitzgerald is currently ranked fifth in quarterback rating with 82.8. The junior quarterback, who has taken only four sacks this season, threw for 305 yards and three touchdowns in the Bulldogs’ game vs. UMass last season.
“He’s big, 6-foot-5, 230 pounds and can run the ball,” Barr said. “And they have a bunch of athletes who are big and can move. We’ve faced some good teams this year and Mississippi State will probably be the biggest challenge. But during the week in practice we work our tails off for sure, no matter who our opponent is. When we step on that field we can’t really get star struck that we’re playing an SEC team, 16 in the nation. We just need to step on the field like we’re playing another game and just know how we play football, be intense the whole game.”
Philip Sanzo can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Philip_Sanzo.