UMass football’s secondary seeks consistency against Southern Illinois

Minutemen allowed 348 passing yards against Rutgers

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UMass football’s secondary seeks consistency against Southern Illinois

(Collegian file photo)

(Collegian file photo)

(Collegian file photo)

(Collegian file photo)

By Noah Bortle, Assistant Sports Editor

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Inconsistency issues plagued the Massachusetts football team’s defense in their season-opening loss to Rutgers on Friday, and with Southern Illinois coming to Amherst on Saturday, the Minutemen seek more consistent play on the back end to slow down the Salukis’ passing attack.

“They have some athletes,” cornerback Isaiah Rodgers said of Southern Illinois. “They have some pretty good receivers. They have a pretty good offense.”

Despite jumping to an early 21-7 lead on Saturday, the UMass (0-1) defense faltered, at one point allowing seven straight scoring drives.

Maybe the most inconsistent position group of the Minuteman defense was the secondary. The group recorded three interceptions, two of which came courtesy of Rodgers. Despite their success in creating turnovers, the unit appeared susceptible to allowing big plays as well. As a unit, UMass allowed 15.8 yards per completion on Friday.

“We need to do our job,” Rodgers said. “We’re out here competing as a room — safeties and corners. So, I feel like with the competition around the room, we all should be successful.”

A lack of a pass rush put more pressure on the Minutemen secondary to defend longer, sometimes allowing receivers to break free from coverage leading to big plays. Head coach Walt Bell expects improvement from the defense as a whole.

“There’s three ways to fix a defense,” Bell said. “Number one, you give great effort, and I feel like we did that. Number two, the details in which we do our job. That’s a much closer game if we can just clean up the details of our job. And number three, how you fix a defense, is you recruit.”

Allowing explosive plays, coupled with limiting penalties could help flip the script for the Minuteman against the Salukis. Bell respects the offense that Southern Illinois has assembled, a unit that averaged 30.09 points per game a season ago and put up 26 points against the 17th-ranked FCS program Southeastern Missouri a week ago.

“[Southern Illinois coach] Nick [Hill] is an offensive guy,” Bell said. “They have scored a lot of points everywhere that they’ve been.”

The UMass defense has a chance to get back on track against a lower-pedigree opponent after facing off against a Big Ten program in Rutgers in week one. Southern Illinois is an FCS opponent, and the matchup with the Minutemen is their only game against an FBS team in 2019.

The Salukis feature a deep receiving core, nine different receivers caught a pass in their week one matchup. While no receiver jumps off the page, Sam Bonansinga led the team in receptions with four for only 16 yards, but Southern Illinois offers enough options offensively to keep the Minutemen’s defense guessing.

Tight end Nigel Kilby stands to garner the most attention from the UMass secondary. Standing at 6-foot-8, Kilby projects as one of the best tight ends in the country, despite playing in the FCS.

Fixing mental errors was a sentiment echoed by many on the team for ways they thought the team would play a more complete game come Saturday.

“Focus on the little details,” running back Bilal Ally said. “If we fix the little details, we can do anything.”

UMass’ defense will have their chance to make more consistent big plays Saturday afternoon. Kickoff is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. as the Minutemen host the Salukis in their first home game of the season at McGuirk Alumni Stadium.

“They’ll be explosive on offense,” Bell said. “So, we’ve got our work cut out for us defensively.”

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