Defense, trench struggles sink UMass football in road loss to Rutgers

Minutemen struggle at the line of scrimmage

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Defense, trench struggles sink UMass football in road loss to Rutgers

(Thom Kendall/UMass Athletics)

(Thom Kendall/UMass Athletics)

(Thom Kendall/UMass Athletics)

(Thom Kendall/UMass Athletics)

By Amin Touri, Editor in Chief

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PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Early in the second quarter of the Massachusetts football team’s season opener against Rutgers on Friday night, Jake Byczko got within a step of Rutgers quarterback McLane Carter, pressuring him into a rushed throw.

Two problems: one, Carter found an open Raheem Blackshear for a 30-yard gain, and two, that moderate hurry was as much pressure as UMass had all day in a 48-21 loss.

The Minutemen, consequently, had two main issues in the first game of the Walt Bell era: defensively, they were terrible, and in the trenches — especially on defense — they got smoked.

UMass’ defensive line struggled throughout to establish any sort of push up front, giving Carter all day to throw as he torched the Minutemen for 340 yards and two touchdowns. The lone sack of the game came when Carter tripped as he dropped back, and went down without being touched.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do, not only from a program and foundational standpoint, and a recruiting standpoint,” Bell said. “Those guys are hard to find, and that’s why every single day we invest the way we invest with recruiting, because we’ve got to go find some pass rush. We were throwing the kitchen sink at those guys, a lot of man pressure there trying to find ways to get home, but we’ve got to do a better job, we’ve got to help our kids. It’s never good enough to come off the field and say we just weren’t good enough, that’s not a good answer, we’ve got to find a way or make a way.”

Things only got worse when the Scarlet Knights went to the ground — Isaih Pacheco ran wild on the Minutemen, racking up 156 yards on 20 carries with four touchdowns.

“I thought they made one or two adjustments in the run game, and again, that’s stuff you’ve got to see on tape to really understand it, because sometimes coaches make ghosts of their own just because things don’t go the way they had been going,” Bell said. “Again, I think it comes down to execution skill, and what we’ve got to continue to practice every day and make sure that when we get in those situations, and they may make a change, we still have to be able to execute well. We’ve still got a lot of work to do, and that’s what we’re going to go back to doing.”

Perhaps that was to be expected. Bell is just working with what he has, and a Big Ten school like Rutgers — even a poor Big Ten school — is always going to have bigger, stronger athletes at its disposal. UMass’ biggest defensive lineman is 6-foot-3, 280-pound Charly Timite; Rutgers’ smallest offensive lineman on Friday was 6-foot-1, 291-pound center Michael Maietti, while the other linemen are at least 6-foot-3 and 300-plus pounds.

The Minutemen just couldn’t win a battle in the trenches, a problem compounded by a tough day from the linebacking corps and the secondary, particularly the former. Even when UMass sent three rushers and dropped eight men back in coverage, Carter would still find soft spots in the zone; that was the best-case scenario, as there were a handful of blown coverages that led to huge gains.

“It’s the first game, people are out there overthinking, just trying to do their jobs and overthinking and doing stuff that they’re not supposed to do,” cornerback Isaiah Rodgers said. “We were just out there overthinking, but we came back in the second half and responded.”

The 4.8 yards per carry the UMass defense gave up weren’t great; the 15.8 yards per completion were lethal, and the result was 548 yards of total offense.

The defense had its moments — Carter was picked off three times, with Joseph Norwood jumping a pass on Rutgers’ opening drive to give UMass an early spark while Rodgers had two picks — but bad moments outnumbered the good ones.

“I thought Isaiah, he had some really good plays and got us out of some jams and kept that thing within arms-length for as long as he could,” Bell said. “It’ll be interesting to go back on tape and see how he actually played. Sometimes the ball finds you and you don’t play great, and sometimes the ball never finds you and you played your best football. I think there’s room for improvement all around, not just Isaiah but the whole defense, and we’re going to back to work.”

Scarlet Knight receiver Bo Melton had a career-high 127 yards and a touchdown — in the first half — and Blackshear finished with 126 yards and a touchdown.

The second half was better, as UMass held Rutgers to 10 points after allowing 38 in the first half hour, finally forcing the Scarlet Knights to punt after failing to do so through two quarters.

It was a poor defensive performance, but an understandable one: the first game with a new coach, having lost some defensive talent from an already-poor defense from last season, against a bigger, more physical Power Five team, and a few mistakes here and there sealed the deal.

“On two of the big plays, we had busted coverages,” said Bell. “I wish I could be very singular in blame, but that’s never on a kid. Never in this program will you ever hear me say ‘oh, well this kid did this.’ I’ll never throw one of my children under the bus. We’ve got to do a better job seeing signals, we’ve got to receive signals, we’ve got to execute the play call, we’ve got to do a better job signaling.

“That’s a team thing, but we’re going to go back to work, and we will get that corrected.”

Amin Touri can be reached at [email protected], and followed on Twitter @Amin_Touri.