UMass defense has an up-and-down first game under Don Brown

Minutemen force one turnover, allow 42 points against Tulane

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Chris Tucci/ UMass Athletics

By Colin McCarthy, Assistant Sports Editor

Win or lose, the Massachusetts football team wanted to make a statement in its season opener on Saturday. Players and coaches alike had a chip on their shoulder, ready to prove that the Minutemen didn’t deserve their No. 131 CFB preseason ranking.

Although UMass lost 42-10 and didn’t quite shake the stigma around the program, its defense showed some improvements compared to what it showcased on the field a season ago. That area was far from perfect, like every part of the game, but it was a small step in the right direction.

“At halftime, I kind of felt like we were in a decent position yard wise, all we needed to do was get a stop and go down and score and then it’s a different game,” UMass coach Don Brown said after the game. “But obviously too many mistakes … too many things that don’t go our way takes you out of the football game.”

The Minutemen (0-1) got off to a rocky start defensively when the Green Wave (1-0) took advantage of a short field and drove in for a relatively easy touchdown on their first possession. The response to that score by UMass’ defense was fierce; Don Brown’s aggressive play calling resulted in its best sequence of the game on that side of the ball.

Tulane started with the ball near midfield but was stuffed on three straight plays and wound up in a fourth and short situation. The Green Wave didn’t hesitate to keep their offense on the field, but the Minutemen held firm and broke up Michael Pratt’s pass attempt to force a turnover on downs.

That turnover gave UMass its best field position of the day and allowed Gino Campiotti to score the Minutemen’s lone touchdown.

“I think we had two or three fourth down stops so there’s some things to look at and have a learning curve on, but not nearly enough,” Brown said. “I didn’t think at any point during the course of the game that we got control of the game.”

There were a couple positives on the defensive side of the football. Tackling took a leap forward under Brown. In 2021, missed tackles were a primary contributing factor in the Minutemen owning the worst defense in the country. Though UMass didn’t completely rid itself of those issues against Tulane, there were less mistakes in that area.

“There were times I thought we showed real physicality, especially in the second quarter it looked like we were making progress,” Brown said.

The Minutemen didn’t practice tackling very much in training camp in order to keep its roster as healthy as possible, so there will likely be more improvements to tacking as the defense plays more games and has more live 11-on-11 periods at practice.

Josh Wallace also showed why he is a captain and widely regarded as one of the best players in UMass’ defense. The junior perfectly read and blew up a screen in the third quarter to put the Green Wave behind the sticks, he to set the edge on outside runs multiple times. Tulane saw a lot of success on outside runs away from Josh Wallace, but seemed to be avoiding the star cornerback as much as possible.

Despite the small positive aspects, UMass’ defense allowed 42 points, 369 yards and gave up a touchdown on nearly every Green Wave drive through the first three quarters. Even though special teams played a factor in that total — Tulane often started with the ball already on the Minutemen’s side of the field — the defense struggled to keep its opponent’s starting offense out of the endzone.

“You still have to make stops, that happens in football, you get the ball in a couple different field positions and you have to make the stop,” Brown said. “Great defenses do that, we didn’t do that tonight.

UMass’ run defense in particular stood out for all the wrong reasons. It allowed five yards per carry 196 yards on the ground. The lowlight of that poor defense came from Pratt’s QB sneak on a short yardage situation. Not only did Pratt get the first down, but he emerged on the other side of the pile still standing and broke free for a rushing touchdown. The Minutemen’s inability to get to him on a play that was only designed to gain a few yards at most showed how far they still have to come this season.

UMass also had trouble getting the right personnel packages on the field at the right moments. Brown took ownership of his need to simplify the substitutions so that he can put players in the correct spot to make plays.

“You need to be able to run substitution packages to match the personnel you’re going against,” Brown said. “You don’t want your 240 pound Sam [linebacker] going against a receiver for example. We got caught one time in zone coverage today, that was very disappointing.”

There is plenty of football left to be played this season, and Brown’s defense showed its potential at moments of Saturday’s opener. But UMass needs to be more consistent on the defensive side of the ball as the weeks progress.

“Bottom line is we got a lot of football in front of us like I told the players,” Brown said. “And we’ll show up back to work and fix this, that’s the goal.”

Colin McCarthy can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @colinmccarth_DC.