UMass football squanders early lead in 48-21 loss to Rutgers

West throws for 106 yards in first UMass start

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UMass football squanders early lead in 48-21 loss to Rutgers

(Thom Kendall/UMass Athletics)

(Thom Kendall/UMass Athletics)

THOM KENDALL

(Thom Kendall/UMass Athletics)

THOM KENDALL

THOM KENDALL

(Thom Kendall/UMass Athletics)

By Thomas Haines, Sports Editor

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PISCATAWAY, N.J. — After jumping out to a two-score lead in the first quarter, the Massachusetts football team gave up 34 consecutive points en route to a 48-21 loss to Rutgers to open the season on Friday night.

UMass (0-1) scored the first two touchdowns on the game, but after Joseph Norwood’s interception on Rutgers’ first offensive series, the Minutemen allowed seven consecutive scoring drives. The UMass offense stalled, and the game was all but out of reach by halftime.

“We had the quick lead there, and really just kind of stayed on script,” Bell said. “They came back, adjusted in the run game, started adding some extra guys in the boundary where we hurt them early, and we came back to the field and just, some self-inflicted wounds there. And again, never once will I say self-inflicted wounds and blame it on a kid. We’ve got to be better as coaches and make sure that they can’t make those mistakes.”

Newly-minted starting quarterback Randall West started out strong, completing 11 of his first 16 passes for 73 yards and a touchdown, but missed slightly on a couple early opportunities, including overthrowing an open Jermaine “OC” Johnson on a would-be touchdown. But the offense struggled from there, with three three-and-outs that allowed Rutgers to take a commanding lead.

“Especially given that [West] hadn’t played a lot of football, I thought he did a really nice job managing the football game,” Bell said. “There’s a couple balls there we’d like to have back, there’s a deep ball there where we ran by a guy and just don’t hook up. But I’m proud of him and how he played.”

The nadir came right before the end of the first half, as West underthrew Zak Simon on the sideline and Avery Young stepped in front to make the interception. Rutgers took the 33 seconds it had left and drove down for its fifth touchdown, stretching its lead to 17 and effectively burying UMass.

“Maybe a little too aggressive there, trying to go create some momentum back and even the score up right there before the half,” Bell said. “Obviously, we had the turnover, then we had that bust on defense that allowed them to score, and that was a really quick fourteen-point swing that really hurt us.”

West finished 20-of-31 for 106 yards with a touchdown and an interception, while Andrew Brito took over for the final 10 minutes of garbage time and recorded two completions on six attempts with an interception.

The game opened auspiciously enough, with West leading a 12-play, 75-yard drive down the field in the hurry-up offense for an opening touchdown. After Norwood’s interception gave the Minutemen the ball back, converted wide receiver Cam Roberson ripped off a 39-yard touchdown run, and Bilal Ally added a 33-yard score of his own on UMass’ next offensive drive to make it 21-7.

“The pace was good, we had them off balance, on their heels,” West said. “When we were playing fast they were getting tired, and we were able to exploit some opportunities off of run-pass options and able to push the ball down the field a little bit to Kyle Horn on that first drive. I think really the tempo and speed we were playing with was great.”

But UMass proceed to log three straight punts and an interception as Rutgers turned a 14-point deficit into a 17-point lead heading into the half. Short screens and run-pass options that worked in the opening minutes were stopped short as the game went on.

Struggling in the trenches and trying to break in a new starting quarterback, the Minutemen weren’t able to generate a downfield passing attack. West’s longest completion of the day came on a 20-yard seam route in the first quarter.

One bright spot was the run game, where Roberson and Ally combined for 122 yards on 19 carries. Freshman Kevin Brown added 32 yards of his own on seven carries with the game out of reach.

“Especially with Kevin Brown coming in there at the end and having some really physical runs, now you feel like you’ve got three backs that have a chance to help you, which will allow us to use Cam in a more multi-purpose tool role,” Bell said. “Use him in the backfield, get him out of the backfield, hopefully allow him to create some matchups for himself.”

On the other side of the field, the defense gave up 548 yards to the Scarlet Knights and surrendered 31 points in the second quarter alone. Although UMass notched three interceptions, two courtesy of Isaiah Rodgers, the back end struggled throughout the day. The Minutemen got torched for 348 yards through the air, allowing Rutgers receivers yards of separation across the field.

“We’ve got to do a better job seeing signals, we’ve got to receive signals, we’ve got to execute play calls, we’ve got to do a better job signaling,” Bell said. “That’s a team thing, but we’re going to go back to work and we will make that correction.”

The Minutemen will look to rebound next Saturday, as they return home for a matchup with Southern Illinois.

Thomas Haines can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @thainessports.