UMass travels to Tallahassee to face surging Seminoles

Walt Bell’s first trip back since leaving in 2018

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Alex Schreyer

Sophie-Zoe Schreyer/ Daily Collegian

By Joey Aliberti, Assistant Sports Editor

Less than a year after being hired away from Maryland to become Florida State’s quarterback coach and offensive coordinator, Walt Bell agreed to a five-year deal to lead the Massachusetts football team’s program as head coach. On Saturday, he will return to Tallahassee for the first time since he took the job in Amherst.

Bell did not have much to say about his time with the Seminoles (2-4, 2-2 Atlantic Coast Conference). He instead gave praise to current head coach Mike Norvell, who took over at Florida State after Bell had already left in 2020.

“He’s had great success everywhere he’s been,” Bell said. “…I’ve got an unbelievable amount of respect for the job he did at Memphis, that place is very near and dear to my heart. He’s a good man, you can already tell they look much better.”

Norvell had a combined record of 38-15 throughout his four years as the head coach of Memphis, where Bell was given his first coaching opportunity as a graduate assistant in 2007. In Norvell’s two seasons with the Seminoles, he is a combined 5-10 and is looking to revitalize a program that has been without a winning record since Jimbo Fisher’s last season as head coach in 2017 (7-6).

After starting the season 0-4, Norvell and Florida State have turned a corner, winning its past two against ACC foes in Syracuse and North Carolina. UMass (1-5) won its first game of the season against a struggling UConn team on Oct. 9.

Both teams have had multiple starting quarterbacks this season. Central Florida transfer Mackenzie Milton started the first three games for the Seminoles, but after going winless while throwing for two touchdowns and four interceptions he was benched. Sophomore Jordan Travis has seven total touchdowns in the two wins, adding 276 yards passing and 234 on the ground.

“Offensively, they’re really starting to settle into who they are,” Bell said. “Up front, I think Jordan Travis is a really dynamic athlete. He’s continuing to improve as a passer.”

Tyler Lytle went down with a wrist injury after the season-opener loss to Pittsburgh, where he was sacked five times.

“I think he’s on track to make it back, at what point, we don’t know,” Bell said. “Its a really interesting injury… The bone itself is healed… but there’s a difference between when [he] can actually throw a ball and when [he’s] in shape enough to perform especially with the length he’s been out.”

Brady Olson started strong in replacement of Lytle, but has slowly started to look like a true freshman quarterback for the Minutemen. Olson has totaled 848 passing yards in five games, though 499 of those came in his first two starts.

As a result of Olson’s regression, along with Kay’Ron Adams having season-ending ankle surgery, Ellis Merriweather has been the centerpiece of Bell’s offense. In the 27-13 win over the Huskies, Merriweather rushed 39 times for 171 yards and two touchdowns, and has a total of 315 rushing yards in the two games in which Adams has not played.

Both Syracuse and UNC have had two 100-yard rushers against the Seminoles defense, one of those being a quarterback for each team. Zamar Wise was a major piece of Bell’s offensive game plan against UConn, as he finished with 64 rushing yards and a touchdown on 11 carries. Granted, the Minutemen are nowhere near an ACC-caliber offense, it is fair to expect more of what was seen against the Huskies on Saturday.

“With a young quarterback, you want to limit the amount of times you put him in harms way,” Bell said of Olson.

UMass is a massive underdog against a surging Florida State team, as it is currently a 35.5-point spread, which happens to be the third-lowest spread for the Minutemen through seven games this season.

While none are expecting UMass to win, many will look to see how Bell and his staff are able to build off of its first win in over two years.

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