Schuster: Five takeaways from UMass football’s season opener at Georgia Southern

What the Minutemen need to improve on ahead of their next game

By Kevin Schuster, Assistant Sports Editor

This Saturday, the Massachusetts football team lost a tough season opener against Georgia Southern who showcased its talents well. The Minutemen (0-1) have had many challenges in recent years, primarily their youth and inexperience.

Head Coach Walt Bell, in his second year at UMass, has only had one full recruiting class. The Minutemen consist of almost 60 underclassmen this season, making their team one of the youngest in FBS. As challenging as that can be, it means there’s room for potential to grow as a program in the coming years.

Already facing challenges in a pandemic, UMass went up against an Eagles (3-1, 1-1 Sun Belt) team very capable of exploiting the Minutemen’s weaknesses. Georgia Southern was able to shut out UMass in a 41-0 victory that left many viewers with questions on what went wrong and how Bell can continue to grow his program in the next few years.

With a second game scheduled for Nov. 7 against No. 22 Marshall, I take a look at the Minutemen’s biggest takeaways, in no particular order, from their season opener.

There is no answer at quarterback

All three quarterbacks for UMass appeared against the Eagles, none outshining the others. Senior Mike Fallon deservingly started the game, being the only quarterback on the roster with any game experience at the collegiate level. Fallon went 7/12 passing for 41 yards and an interception in a little over half of the game.

“We knew going in [we had a] limited amount of practice,” Bell said. “That’s what led to us to going with Fallon. Simply because he’s been around and played some football.”

The tight end turned quarterback Josiah Johnson came in early in the second half. Johnson showed the most poise, converting a 15-yard play backed up on his own three-yard line. Johnson played for the rest of the second half except for the last drive where freshman Will Koch took over. Johnson finished with 39 yards on six completions and an interception.

Koch never threw a pass and yet had the most explosive play on offense for the Minutemen rushing for 25 yards on a read option. Koch ran three times on the final drive of the game, not attempting a single pass.

Since none of the three quarterbacks stood out, who should start against Marshall? As a young team, there’s an opportunity to build around a young quarterback in Johnson or Koch who showed similar potential and won’t be graduating for a few years. Fallon does have more experience but considering the offense is run by the playmaking and ability of the quarterback, the freshmen should see the most playing time when this season is, at this point, being used to give young players experience.

Inexperience showed in the secondary

Going into the game, the big question was how can UMass stop the triple option? A style many programs used well last year to effectively run all over the Minutemen. Georgia Southern, who runs the triple option well, was able to do the same to UMass to start the year.

The Eagles ran for 309 yards, led by running back Wesley Kennedy III who averaged 17.7 yards on six carries. Not only did Kennedy III and company run effectively, Georgia Southern passed the ball more — and better — than expected.

Quarterback Shai Werts threw for three touchdowns in the first half, including converting a 47-yard touchdown pass on the opening drive of the game. This wasn’t a great catch and run however, it was a lack of accountability in the secondary, leaving Malik Murray wide open for the touchdown.

Not reading the eyes of the quarterback is what stood out for Bell who is putting a focus on that during this week’s practice.

“We’ve got some eye control things we got to clean up, and some things very specific to Georgia Southern,” Bell said. “Obviously moving forward, we have no idea if we’re playing another triple option team.”

Offense isn’t built to overcome a deficit

After going down 28-0 in the first half, the Minutemen knew they would have to throw to try to surge a comeback. On the opening play of the second half however, Fallon threw an interception which was quickly converted into a field goal for the Eagles.

From then on, UMass instead continued to try to run the ball with newcomer Ellis Merriweather who had a tough day in the backfield. The Minutemen could never find a rhythm offensively, in most part from their inability to convert a third-and-long and their rotation of the three quarterbacks.

All of this comes back to Bell’s play calling, especially in the second half. In the end, UMass rushed 32 times while completing 13 of its 21 attempted passes. Despite not having a breakout performance by any of the three quarterbacks, there wasn’t much of a chance for any of them to.

The most confusing decision making of the night came on the final drive of the game. The Minutemen, down 41-0 at this point, ran the ball five consecutive times, including past midfield where Koch is more than capable of throwing it to the endzone. With nothing to lose, why not attempt a deep pass and try to get OC Johnson and other receivers a chance to make a play?

The offensive line struggled tremendously

As I said before, Bell’s main focus seemed to be establishing the running game and getting his new running back acclimated to the team. With that being said, Merriweather was the third highest rusher for UMass behind both Fallen and Koch.

On 16 rushes, Merriweather ran for only 21 yards. To his credit, Merriweather only had interior runs whereas the quarterbacks found success scrambling more towards the boundaries. The quarterbacks scrambling however, was the result of the pocket collapsing time and again. The afternoon consisted of 1-yard runs, quarterback scrambles and forced, incomplete passes to avoid taking a sack.

Defensive line has improved

In the first half the entire defense certainly did struggle, but only having 15 or so practices under the Minutemen’s belt will do that to you. Players on both sides of the ball had to take the first drive or two to get accustomed to the pace of an actual game.

For the majority of the second half Georgia Southern started to struggle running the ball. Besides a 56-yard touchdown by Kennedy III, the Eagles were held to many short yard gains or even negative plays at the hands of the UMass defensive line.

The Minutemen defense played well in the second half holding Georgia Southern to only 13 points. Besides the big touchdown by Kennedy III, UMass kept the Eagles to two field goals and forced two punts after forcing Werts to convert third-and-longs after stopping the run on earlier downs.

If it wasn’t for having a season until late September, I would guess the defensive line would look more promising than this game might show. After focusing on gaining size and strength in the offseason, experience seems to be all the defensive line needs to start making a big impact for the Minutemen.

“This was a great learning experience,” Bell said. “What we tell you all week, how we practice, how we prepare, what we talk about and seeing how those things are going to show up in game-like settings hopefully is a wonderful learning experience for these guys.”

Kevin Schuster can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @KevinESchuster.