UMass heads to Liberty for final game of season

Minutemen 0-3 in shortened season

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Parker Peters

Parker Peters/ Daily Collegian

By Joey Aliberti, Assistant Sports Editor

In a season where nothing has been normal, the Massachusetts football team will have its first–and only–normal one-week split in between games this week in its matchup against Liberty.

The Flames (8-1) had remained undefeated this season until last week’s 15-14 loss to North Carolina State. The Minutemen (0-3) are rolling into Lynchburg coming off of a 24-2 loss to Florida Atlantic.

The UMass offense has been slow this season, scoring 10 points against Marshall, while held scoreless in its other two games. The first game saw three different quarterbacks try their hand with the UMass offense, but head coach Walt Bell and his staff shifted over to true freshman Will Koch in the last two games.

Koch has looked like a true freshman with little experience to look, showing flashes of potential matched with misreads and bad throws.

Junior quarterback Malik Willis has helped write a different story for the one-loss Flames. Willis has completed almost 64 percent of his passes for 1,817 yards, 17 touchdowns and four interceptions in his eight starts. Willis also leads Liberty in rushing, gaining 744 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground.

“What makes [Willis] special is not only does he run and have the ability to move around, but he also throws it really well and is a really good decision maker,” Bell said. “On those off-schedule downs, he can go win the down with his feet if things don’t go right.”

This will be the third time the Minutemen will be facing a dual-threat quarterback, with Georgia Southern’s Shai Werts and FAU’s Javion Posey, but Bell hinted at the fact that he sees Willis as the most talented passer of the dual-threat quarterbacks he will have faced this season.

Though the offense has not been able to put together much for UMass, the defense has shown that it is capable of holding its own, as it held FAU to only 3.2 yards per carry, which primarily came on one 70-yard touchdown play from Posey.

“They’re a heck of a lot better on defense than they were last year,” Flames head coach Hugh Freeze said on the Liberty Football Show.

Last year, UMass lost to Liberty 63-21, allowing the Flames to pass for 488 yards and run for another 242. The year before the Flames lost against the Minutemen 62-59 in triple overtime, where NFL receivers Antonio Gandy-Golden and Andy Isabella put on a showcase. Both receivers caught nine passes and two touchdowns, while Gandy-Golden has 205 yards and Isabella racked up 303.

Redshirt senior Avien Peah has been one of the more impactful players for this UMass defense, and arguably the most important defensive linemen, as he has a team-leading six tackles for loss and is third on the team in total tackles.

Peah made the biggest addition to his stat line last Friday, where he accumulated three tackles for loss, a sack and seven total tackles.

“I definitely think it got a monkey off of our back,” Peah said when asked about the defense’s performance against the Owls. “The biggest thing is that we want to keep that going from now until next season.”

It’s been a season where much has been simplified for the young Minutemen, with the combination of an inexperienced quarterback and new faces on the defensive side of the ball. Though it has obviously been a big learning curve for an offense that had already struggled, the defense has been able to play as well as it ever has in Bell’s tenure.

“We went into the game with about three different calls on the call sheet,” Bell said. “All [the calls] included pressure, so there was just a lot of pressure.”

UMass is set to play Liberty at noon on Friday. The game will be airing on ESPN3.

“We’re living through some rough times right now,” Bell said. “But there will be good times in the future.”

Joey Aliberti can be reached via email at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @JosephAliberti1.