The Massachusetts football team secured its first win of 2019 on Saturday, defeating Akron 37-29. The victory marks head coach Walt Bell’s first career win.
“More than anything else, I am just proud of those guys,” Bell said. “For what they’ve been through since we got here and the improvements that they’ve made. I know nobody cares about anything else but wins and losses, but the exponential growth that our kids have had on this football team—academically and socially—and the amount of lives I feel like we’ve been able to effect on this football team. That takes great commitment from those kids…I’m just proud more than anything else to be able to get a win and hopefully a little bit of validation.”
Notably, starting quarterback Randall West was one of six players suspended for the Minutemen (1-4) due to violating team rules. With backup Andrew Brito sidelined with concussion-like symptoms, the door was open for redshirt senior Michael Curtis to get the start at quarterback.
In the starting role, Curtis shined, putting together arguably the best game for a Minuteman quarterback all season. After throwing a tipped-pass interception on the opening drive, Curtis finished with 242 all-purpose yards for three touchdowns–two by air and one by ground—propelling UMass to victory.
“I got the news [of the suspensions] suddenly but from that moment forward it was just getting that mindset of getting ready to go,” Curtis said. “It’s not a thing where you need to get prepared or anything—you always stay prepared through these last four or five weeks. When your number is called you just have to go out there and do your job.”
Curtis flashed his throwing ability throughout, putting balls in spots only his receivers could catch them. He showed his chemistry with receiver Samuel Emilus, including a 29-yard reception up the sideline on the opening drive. Curtis showed his scrambling ability as well, racking up 69 rushing yards, mostly on broken passing plays.
“I think the thing I’m most proud of him for is taking care of the football,” Bell said. “Not putting the ball in harm’s way, doing a nice job of playing within the system. Just proud of him to find a way to win the football game.”
Curtis’s most impressive throw of the game however came on fourth-and-three at the Zips (0-5) eight-yard line. Bell opted to trust his quarterback rather than take the field goal and it paid off with Curtis firing a ball to Sadiq Palmer on a fade route for the touchdown.
“[Sadiq]’s my guy,” Curtis said. “We just lined up in the formation and did a play that usually doesn’t go to that guy. But they came out in a man set and he’s one of the guys who can turn and get the ball, especially down in the red zone. We’ve been throwing fade routes all year for the past three years I’ve known Sadiq, so I just knew where to put it and he made a really good play.”
On the defensive side of the ball, UMass was able to generate pressure on each of the three quarterbacks that Akron featured, forcing a handful of turnovers. Cornerback Isaiah Rodgers highlighted the defensive play for the Minutemen, returning an interception for a touchdown.
“They went no-huddle, so I knew they were going to get the ball out fast,” Rodgers said. “[Jake Byczko] and the d-line were getting to the quarterback the whole day leading up to that moment, so I knew he was going to throw it quick, within the first two seconds. I saw it and the game just slowed down and there it is, touchdown.”
Cornerback Jordan Adams also added an interception and safety Martin Mangram recovered a fumble, allowing the Minutemen to control the turnover battler 3-1. The pressure from the UMass defensive line also forced two sacks and seven tackles for loss.
With 5:24 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Zips completed a 98-yard touchdown drive to cut the score to 37-29. With Curtis not at full health due to cramping up earlier in the contest, the Minutemen put the ball in the hands of running back Bilal Ally to kill the clock and secure the victory. Ally rushed on nine consecutive plays, amassing 78 yards to secure the victory for UMass, including several big runs on third down to keep the offense on the field.
“We had to get that last drive,” Curtis said. “That’s a big attest to the o-line and Bilal for just hammering it in there and doing good…We just had to get first downs and milk the clock and we ended up being successful in doing that.”
For Walt Bell and a UMass team that was ranked among the worst in the FBS, earning their first win of the season meant a lot. Curtis believes the team has come a long way since Bell became the head coach in January.
“To see [coach Bell] and how he’s worked his way up through the ranks,” Curtis said. “Just to see the success he’s had, being a head coach and finally getting his first victory given all the adversity we’ve had, not even the last four weeks but going back to last January all the stuff we’ve been through…We talked about it earlier today that the culture would win this game and that would be what broke the rock for us. Today that’s what happened.”
The Minutemen will look to build momentum on today’s win next week when they take on Florida International on the road. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.
Dan McGee can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @DMcGeeUMass.