Third-down defense, run defense struggles sink UMass football against UConn

Minutemen give up 329 yards on the ground

By Amin Touri, Editor in Chief

With just under five minutes to play in the third quarter, Xavier Steele had to make a decision.

The Massachusetts football team trailed Connecticut by two scores, but had the Huskies facing third-and-5 from midfield, with a chance to make only its third stop of the game and give the UMass (1-7) offense a shot to make it a one-score game.

UConn (2-6) quarterback Jack Zergiotis felt the pressure coming from his blind side and was flushed out of the pocket, rolling right towards Steele — the redshirt sophomore needed to stay or go, pressure Zergiotis or drop back in coverage. Steele got caught in no-man’s land, Zergiotis floated one over his head to Elija Jeffreys for the first down, and the Huskies found the end zone six plays later.

They tacked on two more touchdowns, and a manageable deficit quickly spiraled into a blowout.

The breakdown on third-and-5 was a common theme for UMass on Saturday; earlier in the same drive, the Minutemen had a chance to force a three-and-out with UConn facing third-and-3 at their own 28. But nobody could get a hand on Kevin Mensah — nobody could get a hand on him all day — and he picked up 17 yards after initially getting stuck behind his offensive line.

“Just an overall team deficiency to stop the run game,” UMass coach Walt Bell said. “They came in, ran the same two run plays they’ve run all year, we had as many human beings near the tackle box as you possibly could, and still weren’t able to stop the run.”

On the day, UConn finished 5-of-9 on third down, along with a fourth-down conversion on one of those third-down failures (one of the stops also came once the game was well out of reach), en route to a 56-35 blowout. Coming into the game, the Huskies had only converted 28.7 percent of their third-down opportunities.

“We really didn’t [make stops] all day,” said Bell. “I don’t think the down and distance or the time of the game matter; when they needed to run the football, they found a way to do that. We’ve got a lot of work to do. A lot of player development, a lot of coaching, a lot of everything, that’s somewhere where we’ve got to improve. If we’re going to be who we say we want to be, that’s something that’s got to change.”

As has been the case all year, UMass was gashed time after time, particularly on the ground: UConn racked up 326 yards rushing in all, headlined by a spectacular 164-yard, five-touchdown game from Mensah. The Minutemen had no answers for the Worcester native, who averaged nearly nine yards per carry on 19 attempts, the longest of which was a 45-yard romp down the left side.

Even when UMass could get a hand on a man, be it Mensah or Art Thompkins — who ran for 135 yards and a touchdown of his own — it was often unsuccessful, with missed tackles left and right costing the Minutemen time after time.

“I think I’ve said since the day I got hired, there’s going to be two things we’ve got to do at a high level, and one is recruit talent, and two is develop said talent,” Bell said. “That’s why this staff, we are, in every shape, form, fashion, recruiting at a high level, doing everything we can to change the way this football team looks. When there’s a team from one and a half hours away going into their third year of the program, and the visual disparity between both lines of scrimmage being that apparent, that says we’ve got a lot of work to do in recruiting.”

It truthfully wasn’t much better when the Huskies decided to go the air — Zergiotis finished 18-of-27 on the day for 188 yards and a touchdown, while Quayvon Skanes’ only throw of the night went 15 yards for another touchdown. The only notable defensive plays of the afternoon came from senior Isaiah Rodgers, who made up for an early fumble with an interception, along with a field goal block on special teams.

“We’re hurting,” Rodgers said. “And you can see that on people’s faces. UConn didn’t really do anything that we didn’t work on throughout the week. We’ll just go back into the film room, and it’s onto Liberty now.”

But the run game was UMass’ downfall again; the Minutemen have allowed an average of 274 yards per game on the ground this season, the worst mark in college football by a sizable margin. Even more than the struggles making stops on third down, UMass’ disadvantage up front was the difference on Saturday, as UConn could do whatever it wanted running the ball.

“Stopping the run and running the football is more of a program mentality than anything else,” Bell said. “We’ve got to recruit it, and we’ve got to develop it, every day. And we’ll get there.

“I promise you, before it’s all said and done, we’re going to put a defense out there that people will be really proud of.”

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