Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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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

Touri: Seven takeaways from UMass’ opening night loss to Rutgers

The good, the bad and the defense
Thom Kendall/UMass Athletics
(Parker Peters/Daily Collegian)

Remember when it was 21-7? Ah, how optimistic we were then.

Strangely, I think if you’d told most people pregame that the Massachusetts football team would lose 48-21 to Rutgers on Friday night, they’d think ‘yeah, that makes sense.’ New coach, new system, depleted roster, Big Ten opponent — even a not very good one — it made sense.

But because of the way it happened, with the early success and the coronation of UMass as national title contenders and Randall West as the Heisman frontrunner — it’s not like I’m not guilty of this myself — seeing Rutgers respond with 41 unanswered points made things seem worse than they perhaps were, and makes this game interesting to pick apart the morning after.

That said, here are a few takeaways from the opener.

  1. The defense is a problem

Hot take, I’m aware; truthfully, I think Joseph Norwood’s interception on the first Rutgers drive really tricked us all. Suddenly UMass was up 14-0 and it seemed like smooth sailing, because we didn’t yet know that the defense was about to get run over.

After Norwood’s pick, the following seven drives for the Scarlet Knights read like this: touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, field goal, touchdown, touchdown, field goal. Yikes.

UMass had almost zero pass rush, officially hurrying the quarterback just twice (compared to Rutgers’ 10) without a sack, never so much as laying a hand on McLane Carter, while busted coverages led to big plays in the secondary. Stopping the run was an issue, with the Minutemen allowing 200 yards on the ground, but the 348 yards they gave up through the air were even worse.

Realistically, Walt Bell is coaching a bunch of Mark Whipple recruits, scrapping together what he can on defense and hoping for the best. It’s going to take a couple recruiting cycles to get some of his guys in and bolster that side of the ball — but against bigger, more athletic offenses like Rutgers, the defense is going to really struggle.

  1. Randall West was fine

Just fine. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s one of those things where it seemed like it was all going to plan when West led three consecutive touchdown drives to open the game, including a 20-yard strike up the seam to Kyle Horn to open the scoring.

Bell (or whoever’s calling the plays, they literally may never tell us) seemed to protect West a bit early, calling plenty of bubble screens and run-pass options and never forcing him to throw downfield; it worked, as a handful of screens and out routes picked up some yardage and he seemed to have the timing down on some slants and crossing patterns that were money in the first quarter. From there, it was rocky, as West finished the game 20-of-31 for 106 yards, a touchdown and an interception.

Was he incredible? No. Did he throw a few bad balls, including an underthrow of Brennon Dingle and an overthrow of Jermaine Johnson, both of which probably would’ve gone for touchdowns? Sure. But he was solid enough, and he’ll be under center next week.

  1. Walt Bell is going to be aggressive

Or whoever calls the plays — I’m just going to use Bell as a proxy one way or the other. The Minutemen stayed in the hurry-up, he went for it on fourth-and-long twice on the first drive — successful both times — and broke an onside kick to open the second half.

Bell’s coaching philosophy will take some time to pin down; but we do know one thing, and it’s that the man’s not scared of much. I was impressed by the play calls and the decision-making early, and I think they did a nice job keeping Rutgers off-balance early.

  1. UMass lacks weapons on the outside

I don’t know if this one is completely fair — Rutgers has a Big Ten secondary after all, and after the first quarter, the pocket was collapsing around West before he finished a three-step drop. But it doesn’t seem like he had an Andy Isabella, a Tajae Sharpe, even an Adam Breneman to throw to, a reliable target to bail him out on third and six and make a play.

Perhaps that isn’t fair either, since those are all NFL-caliber players. But the Minutemen’s leading receiver was Kyle Horn, who picked up 37 yards and four catches; not ideal. Sadiq Palmer was held to just four yards on one catch, and Johnson needed six catches to pick up just 27 yards.

  1. Isaiah Rodgers is complicated

I thought it was funny that, asked about Rodgers’ two-interception performance postgame, Bell said he had to see the tape and remarked that sometimes a guy has a bad game and the ball finds him, and sometimes he has a good game and the ball never does.

The upside for Rodgers: two picks affirmed his ability to make a play, and he was a legitimate threat on kick returns and nearly broke free on multiple occasions. The downside: he got burned more than once, with Bo Melton racking up a career-high 127 yards and a touchdown on six catches, largely against Rodgers, just in the first half.

He’s a genuine defensive playmaker, but his big moments came with some question marks on Friday.

  1. The busted coverages killed UMass

If I remember correctly, Melton’s longest reception of the day was a 52-yard bomb with 33 seconds to go in the first half, and he was on his own.

Bell makes a point of never blaming one kid, but one way or the other, it was a busted coverage, and Rutgers’ best receiver was alone downfield with no one within 10 yards of him.

That happened a few times, and while the defense wasn’t great, the blown coverages compounded matters exponentially. Without them, it’s a closer game. The defense still struggles mightily, but the final score probably doesn’t look so lopsided.

Bell spoke about how they needed to be better giving and receiving signals on the defensive end to keep those things for happened, and that will come with time. Speaking of which:

  1. Today is August 31

It’s August. It’s the end of the summer, the day after the very first game of the Walt Bell era. Last night, we saw a new, young team, with a new coach, in a new system, against a Power Five opponent on the road, with a first-time starting quarterback and true freshmen seeing plenty of snaps.

Sitting in the press box at SHI Stadium last night, even with the score at 21-7, I wasn’t sitting there thinking UMass was going to win eight games and go to a bowl game. I thought it was a positive start, but it was one quarter of football.

Similarly, just because it became a blowout doesn’t mean that the Minutemen are going to win one game and get blown out week after week. We’ve seen 60 minutes of football under Walt Bell — programs are built and judged over the course of years, not hours.I know there are folks claiming “same old UMass,” which I understand. Going up 21-7 and losing by 27 is a Whipple-era result through-and-through.

But today is August 31, and Bell and his staff have a lot of time to figure things out; game plans will be adjusted, guys will become more comfortable in the system, recruiting cycles will bring new talent and then we’ll see what a Bell-led UMass team really looks like.

Last night had a few positives and a few negatives. But it’s not time to make any real judgements yet, and there’s a lot of football left to be played. Walt Bell was pretty positive after last night’s game; I think he has his reasons.

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


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