Touri: UMass football’s home opener was a disaster. Now what?

Saturday was a trainwreck, but it wasn’t the point

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Touri: UMass football’s home opener was a disaster. Now what?

(Eva Trainer/Daily Collegian)

(Eva Trainer/Daily Collegian)

(Eva Trainer/Daily Collegian)

(Eva Trainer/Daily Collegian)

By Amin Touri, Editor in Chief

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“Well, it can only go up from here.”

Before the Massachusetts football team’s home opener against Southern Illinois on Saturday I tweeted out a photo of the back page of the September 4, 2012 edition of the Collegian, after UMass was blown out 37-0 in its first game since moving to FBS. That was Collegian staffer Stephen Sellner’s lede: it can only go up from here.

I don’t think it’d be unreasonable to call UMass’ 45-20 home loss to FCS opponent SIU the worst loss the program has had in the FBS era; the last loss to an FCS team came six years ago to the day, a 21-14 loss to Maine on Sept. 7, 2013, but there’s a sizeable gap between a one-score loss in the program’s second year at this level, and a 25-point home blowout in year eight.

It was an unmitigated trainwreck, and I’m not going to sit here and deny that; but truthfully, I don’t think the sky is falling.

Getting smoked at home by a team that quite literally plays in a lower division and was beaten by 18 points by Southeastern Missouri, a school that I didn’t know existed until today, is obviously embarrassing and I don’t think there’s any getting around it.

Walt Bell is in his first year as a head coach, taking over a program that’s still finding its footing in FBS with a record of 18-68 since making the jump in 2012, in a season where he’s working with a major personnel deficit without any of his own guys.

Offensively, the Minutemen lost Andrew Ford and Ross Comis under center, a Biletnikoff finalist and second-round NFL Draft pick in Andy Isabella — probably a top-five UMass athlete of the decade — Marquis Young at running back and a few others here and there; meanwhile, they brought in almost no one.

Defensively, here’s the list of usual starters that either graduated or transferred: Lee Moses, Brice McAllister, Bryton Barr, Jarell Addo, Mario Patton, Tyler Hayes, Leon Flanagan and Joe Previte. Eight starters gone in one season.

Not to mention a complete overhaul of the entire coaching staff.

So, here’s my question: was it ever about this year, anyways?

I feel like I’ve turned into something of an apologist for a coaching staff or two — Matt McCall, really — and that’s not what I’m trying to do. It’s not that Saturday’s loss wasn’t embarrassing or a disaster or unacceptable, on all counts it was; but it also wasn’t the point.

“I think the other thing is, and this is with every first-year program and first-year offense I’ve been a part of, we’re still, at the end of the day, really identifying who can and who can’t, for three hours on Saturdays when there’s people watching,” Bell said. “We’ve got to make sure as we go and we identify people who are going to make plays on a consistent basis that we’re making sure that we gear our plans around them, because at the end of the day, that’s what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to identify what we do well, and we’ve got to commit ourselves to doing that. We’ve got to continue improving as a coaching staff and as a football team to do that.”

Building a football program takes a long time. When there’s a complete coaching overhaul, and a team loses a majority of its starting players with only a few days left in the early signing period to bring players in, there are going to be growing pains, and that’s just a reality. I think this is a personnel problem, not a coaching problem.

You can point to the score of false starts that killed the Minutemen on Saturday as bad coaching, but that aside, how many times could you see a mistake and tie it back to the coaching staff?

When the offensive line collapses and Randall West and Andrew Brito are immediately forced out of the pocket, where does the problem lie? When West misses Kyle Horn wide open up the seam or throws a baffling red zone interception, or Jermaine Johnson drops a pass across the middle that seemed a surefire touchdown, or whoever was supposed to go with Javon Williams on that 85-yard touchdown on a wheel route from the 15-yard line simply doesn’t, where does the problem lie?

Bell talked about the team needing to make “routine plays” like the West miss or the Johnson drop, and while he always take responsibility for that and talk about kids in the right position to succeed, at some point, guys have to make plays, and I don’t think Bell has the right guys to do that right now.

Is the coaching perfect? Of course not. But coaching staffs need to be evaluated over the course of years, not quarters. Some of the players will improve, and you can’t judge everyone on one game, but you can learn a lot more about a player over the course of three hours than you can about a coach.

“We obviously have a long way to go,” Bell said postgame, “but even probably in one of the most miserable times I’ve had standing outside a patch of white lines, there’s still zero doubt in my brain that this thing is not going to be good. I’m still confident in our plan, I’m still confident in our staff and more importantly, I’m still confident in our young people. We’re going to find a way. We’re going to find a way or we’re going to make a way.”

This is going to be a long and sometimes painful process. Maybe the Walt Bell era is going to be a trainwreck, or maybe it’ll take some time to come good.

Saturday was a disaster. But this Saturday, or next Saturday, or the eight Saturdays after that were never the point. It’ll be at least two years until we can properly evaluate this iteration of the program, as tempting as it is to ring the alarm bells; but hey, at least it can only go up from here.

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