UMass football looking for positives on defense as lost season winds down

Challenging two weeks ahead for Walt Bell

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UMass football looking for positives on defense as lost season winds down

Parker Peters

Parker Peters

Parker Peters

By Thomas Haines, Sports Editor

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Saturday marked the fourth time this season that the Massachusetts football team gave up more than 60 points. The Minutemen surrendered almost 500 rushing yards and lost by 56. Yet, for coach Walt Bell, it was a game where he saw some promise.

“The effort level’s there,” Bell said. “The Army game was the least mental errors we’ve had all year. It’s just, we’ve got to continue to recruit and develop and coach. For us, I think the biggest thing is that we address certain position groups that we have to through recruiting.”

Therein lies the challenge for UMass (1-9) as it enters the final two weeks of a season defined by one blowout loss after another. A thin roster and lack of talent have crippled the Minutemen on defense this year, while an offense that can’t stay on the field has exacerbated the issues on the other side of the ball.

“Lot of guys are playing, we’re battling a lot of injuries right now,” linebacker Mike Ruane said. “Next guy up mentality.”

The statistics are bleak. UMass has given up a startling 293.5 yards rushing and 569.5 yards of offense per game. The Minutemen can’t get stops when they need them, either, with opponents converting 52 percent of third downs and 11 of 17 fourth downs.

If there’s improvement, it hasn’t been showing in the box scores. Three of the games where UMass gave up 60 points have come in the last four games.

But that said, after a season of atrocious tackling and fundamentals, blown coverages and big plays, the UMass defense managed to bring runners to the ground and slow down Army’s triple-option attack on Saturday before finally succumbing to the Black Knights’ relentless march.

“I think we really just bought in in practice,” Ruane said. “We didn’t have a lot of mental errors in practice, we did really well in practice and it kind of translated to the game on Saturday. I think we’re just going to try to build off of that this week coming up at Northwestern.”

It’s those seemingly pyrrhic victories that have to be the focus for UMass now, as what was always going to be a lost year comes to a merciful end. Much of the lead-up to 2020 will be centered on recruiting and building up the talent of the program, but in the meantime the guys who are in the building have to start the rebuild in these final games.

It’s a matter of finding a balance between returning the Minutemen to respectability in the here and now and laying the groundwork for a future that many of the players on the field won’t be around to see.

“Just trying to build off what we did the year before and get better,” Ruane said. “We’re trying to make the defense better, not have these blowout games. Buckle down and get the young guys to buy in, I think that’s the biggest part.”

The final two games remaining for UMass come at Northwestern (1-8) on Saturday and at home against Brigham Young (5-4) on Nov. 23. In a challenging first year for Bell, the next two weeks may be the most difficult yet, as the blowout losses continue to take a toll and the end looms.

From Ruane’s perspective, though, the change is already starting to happen.

“I see a lot of guys buying in and listening to what Coach Bell says,” Ruane said. “He preaches every day, his messages are really good, so the more guys that buy in, the better.”

Thomas Haines can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @thainessports.