UMass offense looking to make progress moving into final game against Liberty

Team has scored 12 points through three games

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Parker Peters

Parker Peters/Daily Collegian

By Dan McGee, Assistant Sports Editor

Twelve points. A touchdown, a field goal and a blocked punt for a safety. Those are all the points that the Massachusetts football team has mustered through three games so far this season.

Though expectations are largely tempered for the developing UMass (0-3) squad, scoring 10 points offensively through three games is something of a disappointment, especially for a team that averaged 19.8 points per game in 2019. Averaging under 20 points per game is certainly not impressive, ranking the 2019 Minutemen 118th of 130 teams in the country, but the regression on offense certainly raises some question marks.

“We’re really trying to focus on what we can do to give ourselves a chance on offense,” coach Walt Bell said heading into UMass’ final game against Liberty. “We’ve got to play better at quarterback, we’ve got to play better up front. We have to stop playing 10-man football.”

For one, the amount of experience on the offensive side of the ball has taken a step back. While wideouts Samuel Emilus and Jermaine “OC” Johnson Jr. have contributed, leading the team with 13 and 12 receptions respectively, UMass did lose some valuable pass catchers from 2019 including Sadiq Palmer and Zak Simon. In the backfield, 2019 workhorse Bilal Ally was replaced by Ellis Merriweather, who has only totaled 100 yards this season.

The Minutemen have added much needed depth and size to their offensive line, returning some key contributors like left tackle Larnel Coleman and center Dalton Tomlinson. And of course, senior quarterbacks including Randall West and Michael Curtis, who led UMass to its only win in 2019, have been replaced by true freshmen Will Koch and Garrett Dzuro.

“Not to boil it down to one thing or throw anyone under the bus but from a quarterback standpoint, from a throw and catch standpoint, you’re starting to see how hard it is to prepare a young quarterback with no fall camp, no spring football,” Bell said. “To me that was very evident in the [game against Florida Atlantic] with the how many times we didn’t connect the dots and how many simple errors we had.

“You’ve got a true freshman with no fall camp with 13 days to get ready to play his first game and a couple of practices in between each one. We’ve got to improve at the quarterback position, that’s going to come through repetition.”

Adjusting to the speed of the college game has been apparent for Koch and Dzuro who have both missed some reads and underthrown passes consistently. Bell continued by saying that the offense has narrowed down its playbook to make things easier on the freshman quarterback duo. Nevertheless, inconsistent play calling has also been somewhat of a theme for the Minutemen at the start of the season.

Though dialing up trick plays has certainly helped UMass on offense—including a 37-yard flea flicker pass to Taylor Edwards that set up the lone touchdown of the season against Marshall—the downside of these unique play calls could be seen in the second quarter against the Owls.

On first-and-10, nearing midfield at the UMass 41-yard line, Koch delivered a screen pass to backup quarterback Andrew Brito, who was lined up outside as a receiver. Brito caught it, waited a moment, and then passed it back to Koch toward the opposite sideline. The true freshman caught the pass but without blockers was stuffed behind the line for a five-yard loss. Following the loss, Cam Roberson rushed for no gain on second down and Koch was hurried on third-and-15, throwing an incomplete pass intended for Ellis Merriweather. The Minutemen were then forced to punt.

Bell has continuously preached cutting down line-to-gain situations to open the playbook in short yardage and make it easier for the UMass offense to stay on the field. The aforementioned example is only one case of many all season where the Minutemen have been forced to face third-and-long. To improve, the offense needs to be put into a position where it can be successful in the early downs, and that stems from the play calling.

“We’ve had many discussions,” Bell said about the offensive play calling. “But we’ve got to do whatever we have to improve and give ourselves a chance to win.”

All things considered, UMass has had to face a daunting schedule so far this year. Per Sports Reference, the Minutemen strength of schedule ranks 19th of 127 teams in the country, representing a far more difficult challenge when compared to their 2019 schedule, which was ranked 129th of 130. Heading into its last game of the year against Liberty (8-1) will present another challenging opponent for UMass.

“Georgia Southern right now is at the top of the Sun Belt on defense, Marshall is top 10 in the country on defense and Florida Atlantic is top 10 in the country on defense,” said Bell. “Playing against good defenses doesn’t help, but we don’t care. We have to improve.”

Dan McGee can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @TheDanMcGee.