Will Koch provides versatility at quarterback in UMass loss to No. 16/15 Marshall

The true freshman finished with 99 passing yards

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Nina Walat

Nina Walat/Daily Collegian

By Dan McGee, Assistant Sports Editor

Despite a 51-10 loss to No. 16/15 Marshall on Saturday, the Massachusetts football team flashed some potential in true freshman quarterback Will Koch.

“There’s good and bad. For a first start in a hostile environment, we didn’t have a lot of the typical pre-snap issues or sideline issues you’d expect from a young quarterback,” coach Walt Bell said. “I think he played well, but we have to watch the tape to find out about his eye discipline and how he truly did driving his eyes to the right place and reacting accordingly.”

Koch got the start on Saturday after coming in during garbage time in UMass’ (0-2) 41-0 loss to Georgia Southern. Against the Eagles he rushed four times for 41 yards without throwing a pass, finishing the game as the Minutemen’s leading rusher. However, his limited playing time and practice performance was enough for Koch to earn the starting nod against the Thundering Herd (6-0, 3-0 Conference USA).

On its second drive of the game, UMass put together its most successful offensive performance of the season. Highlighted by a fake-reverse flea flicker pass for a 37-yard gain to Taylor Edwards, Koch later found Samuel Emilus on a play-action rollout for a two-yard touchdown pass, the first of his career. The Minutemen made the most of a few Thundering Herd penalties on their only touchdown drive of the day, moving down the field in seven plays for 53 yards.

Koch’s success at quarterback largely stemmed from his versatility. Though he is considered a pro-style quarterback, Koch’s success on the ground largely opened the UMass playbook against Marshall. Koch executed the read option several times, and his ability to rollout and throw from outside the pocket helped the Minutemen move down the field on many occasions.

Against Georgia Southern, UMass’ offense largely consisted of inside power runs, which were largely unsuccessful against the physicality of the Eagles defense. With Koch at quarterback, the Minutemen were able to spread the offense a bit and give some different looks.

Perhaps Koch’s most impressive play came on third and two from the UMass 33-yard line. The true freshman opted to keep the ball on a read option, narrowly escaping two Marshall defenders, rushing 12 yards for the first down. As a true freshman playing against a veteran defense, Koch’s awareness to keep the ball for himself in that situation was impressive.

“For an 18-year old true freshman without a spring, without a real fall camp, without as many repetitions as you would normally get, I thought with limited reps as an 18-year old he did a decent job,” Bell said. “I’m sure we’ll watch the tape and find plenty to improve. That’s the most important thing on Sunday, if we can be critical of ourselves, take it and apply it to the practice field and continue to improve.”

Of course, not everything went the right direction for the Niceville, Fla. native, however.

He and his receivers suffered from some miscommunication from time to time. On third-and-four from the Minutemen 12-yard line, he missed an open read to receiver O.C. Johnson. On the first drive of the second half, he made a questionable incomplete throw into double coverage rather than scrambling for the first down on third and short, resulting in an ensuing UMass punt. Koch was strip sacked on first down after converting a fourth-and-one midway through the third quarter, setting up the Thundering Herd in great field position.

“[On] the screen, we didn’t do a good enough job on the three technique where there was some early pressure in [Koch’s] face that kind of surprised him,” Bell said of Koch’s strip sack.

But as a true freshman against a ranked, top-15 opponent in college football, his errors were understandable given the circumstances. With COVID-19 restrictions in place and a late start to the season, Koch barely has two months of college football practice experience under his belt.

“Offensively there were times we played decent football, especially when you go against a great defense and you can’t hurt yourself,” Bell said. “Without watching the tape, I know there are some things in pressure situations, some third downs, where we had some issues and need to be better in blitz pick up. We’ve got to continue, especially against a great defense, to find ways to run the football and take pressure off our young quarterback.”

By the fourth quarter, the Thundering Herd had blown open the lead and Koch was replaced by redshirt freshman Garrett Dzuro. Through three quarters, Koch completed 12 of 18 passes for 99 yards and a touchdown. He also added five yards on the ground, lost a fumble and was sacked a handful of times.

Looking at the box score it is easy to see it wasn’t a very pretty day for the Minutemen. But with Koch at the helm, the UMass offense emitted some refreshing success that was nowhere to be found in its game against Georgia Southern.

On the other side of the ball, Marshall started its own true freshman in Grant Wells, who put together a 21 for 30 passing performance for 257 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns across three quarters. Granted, no pun intended, Wells does have a supporting cast of a much higher caliber compared to Koch, including an entire offensive line of redshirt seniors and a tenured coach in Doc Holliday who has had time to build a complete roster.

To consider Koch the future of the UMass program after one career start would be premature. But in an unusual season that might be frustrating to some UMass fans, Koch is certainly a bright spot. For the time being, Koch should remain the starting quarterback of the Minutemen.

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