Aliberti: Creative formations show bigger picture problems for the Minutemen’s offense

UMass loses 59-3 to Florida State Saturday

By Joey Aliberti, Assistant Sports Editor

Head coach Walt Bell attempted to use creativity to spark his offense against Florida State, but the Massachusetts football team was unable to capitalize on the unorthodox formation, losing 59-3 on the road.

Bell showcased a formation that lined up just three offensive linemen up front, spacing out the other two out wide, one on the left and on the right. Two pass-catchers lined up with the lineman, while quarterback Brady Olson was joined in the backfield by Ellis Merriweather.

The formation forced corners to stay close to try and defend any potential short-pass plays on both sides, opening the sidelines about 10-15 yards out.

Olson had opportunities to complete passes to wide open receivers running down the sideline, but inaccuracy halted any hope of success in the unique formation.

Bell has utilized double passes and double reverses in the past to try and throw off opposing defenses. One of note was against Coastal Carolina when a trick play set up two receivers downfield: one was double covered down the middle of the field, and the other was wide open along the sideline, likely to score a touchdown if Olson found him. Olson did not look down the right sideline, instead taking the risk to throw it deep down field into double coverage, resulting in an incompletion.

Talent is a massive factor in Bell’s offensive creativity, especially against an Atlantic Coast Conference team such as Florida State (3-4, 2-2 ACC). The Seminoles have recruited 37 four-star recruits (247 Sports) in the past four years. Meanwhile, Bell has yet to land a four-star recruit and likely won’t for a long time due to the lack of a pedigree within the program.

Offensive identity is one of the primary struggles for one of the worst teams in college football, and a struggling quarterback against a talented roster will not help in that search. Bell has said that offensive game plans switch week-to-week because of differentiating strengths and weaknesses from opponents. Though this is true, the Minutemen (1-6) are consistently controlled by opponents in games, which makes it much harder for Bell to even try and create an identity.

The running game is where the Minutemen have been forced to try and find success in recent weeks due to the regression of Olson. Merriweather, who ran for 171 yards on 39 carries two weeks ago against UConn, was held to one rushing yard on 10 attempts Saturday afternoon.

Olson started the first half, but after a poor start Bell elected to start Zamar Wise in the second half. Olson threw two interceptions in the first half: one to double coverage at the goal line to negate UMass’ best drive of the game and another poor throw that was returned for a touchdown.

Bell did not try as much trickery with Wise in the game, as the dual-threat quarterback already imposes enough versatility with his legs unlike Olson, along with the fact that UMass was already losing 38-3 at halftime. Wise was unable to provide any more scoring opportunities for the offense.

A bigger question poses for Bell and his staff with five games remaining in 2021: Does a struggling Brady Olson remain the starter until Tyler Lytle returns, or does Zamar Wise replace Olson to prevent his confidence from completely withering?

Whether it be confidence or defenses figuring out Olson and how to force him into bad decisions, the true freshman is struggling. Flashes of a great quarterback are negated by a slew of rushed decisions and inaccuracy. Lytle’s return seems to be coming soon, but if he doesn’t play next week against Liberty, then Wise could very well be the answer at quarterback.

Bell constantly talks about how great of a player Olson will be in the coming years, but there is a lot of impact in allowing the raw quarterback to take time and develop in practice before he becomes a consistent difference-maker on Saturdays. Until that day comes, Bell must rely upon the creativity of his offensive looks to try and keep his team afloat.

Joey Aliberti can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @JosephAliberti1.