McCarthy: UMass’ defense does exactly what it needs to do, but doesn’t have any help

Minutemen force three turnovers in the loss

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Dylan Nguyen/ Daily Collegian (2022)

By Colin McCarthy, Assistant Sports Editor

For the second straight week, the Massachusetts football team went into the locker room with a real chance to win, thanks primarily to their defense. And for the second straight week, the defense couldn’t sustain that level of success in the second half.

I don’t think that’s any fault of their own, though.

Against Eastern Michigan on Saturday, UMass (1-4) didn’t lose because its defense ran out of gas, it lost because it’s offense couldn’t take advantage of chances the defense gave them.

Minutemen coach Don Brown nailed his game plan exactly right against the Eagles. He played aggressive defense and pressured EMU’s starting quarterback Arthur Smith. Smith isn’t the full-time starter and is only a sophomore, so the pressure UMass was applying got to him. Brown took Smith out of his rhythm early on and continued to disrupt him for the entire first half and parts of the second.

Jalen Mackie flew all over the field on defense. He sacked Smith once and also got an interception. Mackie is one of the Minutemen’s field generals on defense and he was a key piece in keeping the scoring low for EMU.

The defensive line also bought into the aggressive playstyle UMass was utilizing, pursuing Smith relentlessly anytime he got out of the pocket. A few weeks prior, Toledo’s mobile quarterback gave the defense a load of trouble from outside the pocket, but the same could not be said for the Eagles. On top of flushing Smith out of the pocket, the Minutemen didn’t open up spaces for him to improvise with his legs. Instead, Smith was forced to throw the ball away multiple times.

Adding these improvements along with the fact that UMass’ secondary has been playing well recently makes this defense a major improvement compared to prior years. But the defense can’t be expected to hold on forever. At some point, the offense needs to help them out a little bit.

It’s not exactly a secret that the Minutemen’s offense has been overall underwhelming. But at least in the first half against the Eagles, they dominated time of possession. They kept the defense refreshed and, to their credit, did convert one of the defenses turnovers into points. But in the second half, UMass’ offense couldn’t stay on the field, and they put a lot of pressure on the defense to carry the load to hold onto its lead.

The Minutemen need to produce more on the offensive side of the ball to have some level of success. Their defense gave them a legitimate chance to defeat Temple as well as Eastern Michigan, but you have to score points to win football games and UMass can’t find the endzone. The offense hasn’t scored multiple touchdowns yet in a game this season. Even against Stony Brook, an FCS program, they only mustered one touchdown offensively. The other touchdown came from Jordan Mahoney on defense.

I think Gino Campiotti looked pretty good against EMU and did the best he could to fill the rushing void left by Ellis Merriweather and Tim Baldwin Jr.’s absences. But again, this team badly needs to score points, and the offense wasn’t doing enough of that.

This is a step in the right direction for UMass football overall. The defense is playing much better than expected in year one and will grow even more as Brown’s recruiting classes start making their way to Amherst. The special teams also improved dramatically against the Eagles. Now the offense needs to follow suit.