Focus is on the details for UMass football’s defense prior to Saturday’s matchup against Charlotte

UMass has allowed 46.5 points per game this season

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Focus is on the details for UMass football’s defense prior to Saturday’s matchup against Charlotte

(Eva Trainer/Daily Collegian)

(Eva Trainer/Daily Collegian)

(Eva Trainer/Daily Collegian)

(Eva Trainer/Daily Collegian)

By Noah Bortle, Assistant Sports Editor

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Massachusetts football head coach Walt Bell subscribes to a three-headed approach to fixing a defense: great effort, paying attention to details and recruiting. So far this season, the UMass defense has shown it could use Bell’s help.

The Minutemen (0-2) head to Charlotte (2-0) on Saturday, and attention to detail is one area that could help a squandering UMass defense find notable improvement.

“[I expect] a really well-prepared football team that plays really hard that’s really well coached,” Bell said of Charlotte. “They’re going to run the ball right at us and try to throw it over our head.”

In terms of opponent points per game, the Minutemen sit 127th of 130 teams nationally, allowing 46.5 points per game in their small sample thus far. There is plenty of room for improvement, and if Bell is correct, the quickest route is through the elimination of mental errors.

While Bell holds true to his multi-faceted approach to defense-building, at this point in the season, attention to detail is area easiest to address. For all the defense’s shortcomings in 2019, Bell has never questioned the unit’s effort. And while recruiting doesn’t stop during the season, any meaningful breakthroughs on the recruiting trail aren’t going to help UMass slow down Charlotte on Saturday. That leaves attention to detail as the crux of the Minutemen’s defensive success this weekend.

“We got a good team here,” defensive end Jake Byczko said. “We’re playing hard. We’ve got to stick to the detail more and obviously that comes with better practices. It’s really that simple, play hard and know your responsibility and we’ll come out with a win.”

A breakdown in assignment contributed to the biggest play in last Saturday’s loss to SIU, an 85-yard touchdown on a wheel route in the second quarter. It’s easy to imagine a world in which UMass can cancel out these big plays defensively with a decline in mental mistakes, drastically cutting down on opponent scoring.

Similar problems cursed the Minutemen against Rutgers. A 52-yard pass resulting from a coverage breakdown was the dagger in week one as it set up Rutgers for their second score in the final two minutes of the first half.

Charlotte’s offense doesn’t pose an easy job to slow down, the 49ers’ 45 points per game ranks 20th in the FBS. Averaging 517 yards per game makes for a daunting task for the Minutemen defense.

As if Charlotte’s strong offense wasn’t enough of a challenge for UMass, the 49ers feature a well-balanced attack. Having scored six rushing touchdowns and six passing touchdowns, it might prove more difficult slowing down the 49ers’ offense than stopping an explosive one-dimensional offense would be.

One area that UMass has enjoyed success defensively is turning over opponents. With three interceptions and a forced fumble, the Minutemen possess the big play ability that could wreak havoc for an interception-prone Charlotte offense. The 49ers tossed three interceptions in their opening week win against Gardner-Webb and another week two against Appalachian State.

If UMass is to successfully disrupt Charlotte quarterback Chris Reynold’s rhythm, their pass rush will have to start producing. Charlotte’s offense has run into trouble when protecting the quarterback, allowing eight sacks this year.

“They have a pretty solid o-line,” Byczko said. “We just have to try to beat them off the ball and play violent, that’s really all you got to do.”

While young players along the defensive line could be reason for the lack of a pass rush, Bell thinks having game experience under their belts should help the freshman-laden position group.

“We’ve got a lot of young players that are out there playing,” Bell said. “They’ve been in two football games and they’ve got to improve.”

Kickoff is set for 6 p.m. on Saturday in Charlotte.

Noah Bortle can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @noah_bortle.