UMass football readies for its season opener against Georgia Southern

The Minutemen only had 15 practices of preparation for the Eagles


Nina Walat/Daily Collegian

By Kevin Schuster, Assistant Sports Editor

Barring any last-minute surprises, the Massachusetts football team will play its first game of the season against Georgia Southern in its season opener. After months of the fall season being in jeopardy, the Minutemen (0-0) reached their decision to play on Sept. 21, following a positive review of the program’s strict COVID safety protocols.

In front of them are the Eagles (2-1 NCAA, 1-1 Sun Belt) who have already played three games this season. Experience and comfort on the football field is sure to play a large role in their meeting this Saturday, as UMass has only had 15 practices to prepare for its opponents.

Georgia Southern is coming off a win against the Louisiana-Monroe on Oct. 3 where the Eagles secured a five-point win over their conference opponents. They were set to play school rival Appalachian State this past Wednesday until positive COVID cases forced the Mountaineers to postpone. This opened the door for UMass to be a fill in on Georgia Southern’s schedule this weekend.

The Minutemen are one of the youngest programs in the FBS with a hair under 60 underclassmen on their team. UMass head coach Walt Bell believes that despite having so many young players, the challenges the Minutemen will face Saturday will be typical first game issues.

“I’m worried about substitutions, I’m worried about managing the line of scrimmage, I’m worried about making sure we got 11 guys out there, you know, handling shifts and motions,” Bell said. “I’m more worried about the typical mistakes you see game one in a football program, for any football team at any level, high school, college, or the NFL. I’m more worried about those typical first game mistakes than I am about specific players and how they’re going to operate in a system.”

Georgia Southern is no easy opponent for anyone, losing only to a last second field goal against No. 19 Louisiana earlier in its season.

“They’re really talented,” Bell said. “There’s a reason coach Lunsford and those guys have been playing bowl games. Having been in the Sun Belt myself and being in that league and knowing the respect they have within that league, I think the challenge is that they’re a good football team.

UMass has faced difficulties in the past defending against teams running a triple-option, which Georgia Southern uses effectively, averaging 50 carries and 270 rushing yards per game.

“What they do on offense is very specific. The amount of pressure that’s going to put on a really young defense, especially early in the game before they adjust to the speed of that. The speed of the option and how that thing is going to really play out.”

Senior linebacker Cole McCubrey and the Minutemen defense have spent practice this week ironing out a plan to limit the Eagles’ offensive production.

“It comes down to a couple things,” McCubrey said. “One, it starts with the eyes. That’s a big focus this week, just having our eyes in the right spot. Two, it’s going to come down to tackling. We’re going to have to tackle and really run to the ball. That always makes up for any type of errors or missed tackles, to try to eliminate big plays.”

One of UMass’ strengths of its own was its running game last season, accounting for 1,495 of the 3,517 total yards. With Bilal Ally, the Minutemen’s leading rusher last season, transferring this off-season, UMass will need to rely on JUCO transfer, Ellis Merriweather, to get the job done on the ground.

“Coach Layman does a great job of helping us see the plays, see the defense, so it kind of slows everything down and makes it a lot easier,” Merriweather said. “I would just say that we’re confident in our abilities and in the game plan.”

The Minutemen have been practicing with limited players this season, as COVID restrictions limited walk-on players ability to go to campus. As a result, players have had to focus on individual training more often than previous years while Bell splits up reps the best he can.

“The biggest thing is we’re only running with about 80 guys right now total since we don’t have the majority of our walk-on players with us,” Bell said. “We’re getting a lot less team reps than normal just because of how much more time it takes to do so.”

While the starting quarterback remains one of UMass’ biggest questions ahead of Saturday, comfort and the ability to read the defense will play a large role in Bell’s decision on who should be under center.

“It’s the amount of odd looks you get from the defense, the structure, or how many down lineman stay the same,” Bell said. “There’s a lot of moving parts there and knowing we really only had 15, 16 practices to really put in a whole offense, you’re worried about what your execution skills are going to be and look like when there’s people moving all over the place.”

Saturday’s kickoff is set for 4 p.m. against the Eagles at Allen E. Paulson Stadium. The game is now scheduled to air on ESPN 2, UMass’ first game on the network since 2006

Kevin Schuster can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @KevinESchuster.