McGee: Seven takeaways from UMass’ blowout home loss to Southern Illinois

The future is more valuable than the present for UMass football

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McGee: Seven takeaways from UMass’ blowout home loss to Southern Illinois

(Eva Trainer/Daily Collegian)

(Eva Trainer/Daily Collegian)

(Eva Trainer/Daily Collegian)

(Eva Trainer/Daily Collegian)

By Dan McGee, Assistant Sports Editor

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Things were looking pretty good for UMass football when it scored a touchdown to take a 13-10 lead with 1:26 to go before half time against Southern Illinois.

Just 1:18 later though, the Salukis had the lead—and the momentum—ripping a 32-yard touchdown reception just seconds before intermission.

Though the touchdown drive before the half was only one of the ugly moments in the Minutemen’s 45-20 blowout loss, it was a back-breaking blow that epitomized UMass’ struggles so far this year.

Here are a few takeaways from that moment, and from the loss as a whole:

  1. The youth and inexperience of the team shows in more ways than one

Outside of Bilal Ally and Sadiq Palmer on offense and Isaiah Rodgers and Jarvis Miller on the defensive side of the ball, UMass lacks experience in basically every position group.

Inexperience in the defense showed in the one-minute touchdown drive allowed before the half, one of three 30-plus yard scores allowed. With eight seconds left and SIU just out of field goal range, the Minutemen left D.J. Davis alone on the right sideline for the easy touchdown. Blown coverages, missed tackles and mistakes galore demonstrate that this defense needs some time to grow.

Even though Randall West is a redshirt senior, he’s really only played six quarters at quarterback, which may have contributed to the bad read that led to an interception in the red zone at the start of the third quarter. Penalties, including seven false starts, also highlighted how little experience and discipline the UMass offensive line has. Freshman wideout Jermaine “OC” Johnson contributed a rookie moment of his own, committing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that would kill the Minutemen momentum on a red zone drive.

Inexperience didn’t always excuse the indiscipline, though. After Johnson’s penalty, coach Walt Bell sent him to the locker room for the rest of the game.

2. UMass needs to improve in the trenches on both sides of the ball

As fellow Collegian writer Noah Bortle pointed out, the Minutemen offensive line needs some major work. Whether it was Randall West or Andrew Brito in the pocket, or Bilal Ally and Cam Roberson in the backfield, the offensive line could not hold up to the ferocity of the SIU defense – again, an FCS opponent, and one that had allowed 44 points to Southeast Missouri the week before.

West and Brito failed to get through their first reads on multiple occasions before having to scramble outside the pocket. Outside of the opening drive, where Ally gained 36 yards on five carries—SIU putting only five defenders in the box for most of the drive—UMass ran for just over two yards per carry.

Defensively, the Minutemen couldn’t stop the run if their lives depended on it. Javon Williams Jr. did whatever he wanted running the ball on Saturday, averaging 11.3 yards per carry. Just like Rutgers the week before, the Salukis basically bullied the Minutemen in the trenches for 60 minutes.

  1. The running back committee should be fine

Ah, a bright spot to an otherwise dismal season so far: the running backs. The Minutemen have given carries to Ally, Roberson and Kevin Brown so far this season, each of whom has scored at least one touchdown. While Ally’s production as the lead back this year might mean little to the future of the program, mixing in touches to freshmen Roberson and Brown has given the younger backs some experience that can hopefully make them valuable members of the offense in the next few years.

It wasn’t a banner game on the ground – two yards per carry, again – but that’s more at the feet of the offensive line. All three ran hard, showed some explosiveness, and gained yards after contact. It was just that contact generally came before they even got back to the line.

  1. The UMass quarterback situation might be more complex than it seems

Walt Bell essentially told media to take West’s third quarter benching with a grain of salt, but the possibility of a quarterback controversy should always be analyzed. After all, Andrew Brito is only a junior, meaning Bell has an extra year to develop him in his system. Though I expect West to start versus Charlotte, if he struggles as the season rolls on, a change to Brito in the starting role wouldn’t be the most unrealistic thing in the world. Though his five-foot-ten stature is something to be desired off, Brito’s cannon of an arm makes him an interesting candidate to develop with Bell’s growing offense. We’ll have to see if Bell continues to make quarterback changeups over the next few games.

  1. High expectations need to be toned down

Prior to the game versus Southern Illinois, UMass was favored to win by 6.5 points. Six and a half! I’m sure for the rest of the season, UMass won’t be favored by that much, even against a lesser FCS opponent like SIU.

There’s a certain group of UMass fans that might’ve expected a new head coach to change the results of UMass football immediately. But that’s just not going to happen. Any expectations for Walt Bell to come in and flip the UMass football program on its head in his first season should be shelved.

Bad as this was, the key will be whether the Minutemen improve over the season. That goes for Bell too, as the offensive play-calling has been stale the first two weeks.

  1. Recruiting is the most important factor for this team

After being dominated two games in a row, once by a power-five school in Rutgers, the other by FCS foe Southern Illinois, it’s glaringly obvious that UMass lacks talent. To this point, that’s something Bell has had a limited effect on; he’s had a very brief opportunity to recruit and develop his own players. For the future of the UMass football program, Bell needs to recruit as much talent as possible to rejuvenate a team that desperately needs it.

  1. Bell and co. still believe in the long-term success of the program

After Saturday’s loss, Bell said what might be the most telling quote of the whole season.

“Even in, probably one of the most miserable times I had in my life standing outside a patch of white lines, there’s still zero doubt in my brain that this thing is not going to be good,” Bell said. “I’m still confident in our plan.”

Calling Saturday’s game one of the most miserable times in his football career might not be so far from how many UMass fans felt, watching an FCS team blow out the UMass program that made the jump to the FBS ranks in 2011. But Bell knows Rome wasn’t built in a day. His plan for the UMass football program starts today by instilling a culture and system, but UMass didn’t hire Bell with the expectations of going to a bowl game in his rookie season.

Bell and the coaching staff are confident that they can turn this team around. Only time can tell when.

Dan McGee can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @DMcGeeUMass