It's been a fun couple of weeks for UMass football fans. They got to witness the team's first win as an FBS program, albeit by "witnessing" I mean watching a jumpy feed from the MACDN, listening to the radio broadcast, or following along with the UMass GameTracker. I guess there were a few maroon-clad fans in the stands too. Regardless, one of many hurdles was jumped last week against Akron, and the team and its fans were all able to breathe a very large sigh of relief. I just hope no one had been holding their breath this whole time.
The win itself wasn't as much impressive as it was a microcosm of everything it is to watch and follow UMass football. The defense, which has been strong all season, finally had their impact rewarded in the final score. The Minuteman defense picked off Dalton Williams four times and sealed the win by bringing Williams down for a sack on Akron's final drive with 1:30 left.
The special teams was superb, as walk-on freshman Joe Colton blocked an Akron punt that was then returned to the 3-yard line. Punter Colter Johnson came through as well, with four of his punts downed inside the Akron 10, and two of them pinning the Zips at their own one. Johnson was later named the MAC Special Teams Player of the Week, UMass's first Player of the Week honor in the conference. Of course it's the punter.
The offense wasn't spectacular, but it also wasn't the ineffective mess that it has been through most of the season. Quarterback Mike Wegzyn moved the ball well, throwing for 266 yards, his second-highest total of the season. Wegzyn also managed to throw a touchdown pass for the first time since the Ohio game, so good on him. Tight end Rob Blanchflower is honing his Gronk impersonation as he was on the receiving end of that Wegzyn score, while wideout Alan Williams continued his consistently productive play.
So that was nice. A week to enjoy the win after a season full of anxiety and disappointment. The big question was whether it would carry into this past weekend, when UMass hosted a Buffalo team that has played really well in most of their games. And for more than a half, it looked like that was the case.
Following a failed fourth-and-short opportunity, UMass responded on their second drive, with kicker Blake Lucas hitting a career-long 39-yard field goal. Lucas has shown he can be a confident option when given time this season, which has become more frequent as of the past few weeks. After missing a field goal and extra point in his first action against Indiana, he has been perfect, and with Lucas being a freshman, that has to sit well on Charley Molnar's mind for the future.
UMass continued to move the ball well against the Bulls, while their defense stifled the opposing offense. At halftime, the score stood at 13-0, and UMass would remain in the lead until early in the fourth quarter. It became apparent that, as has happened so frequently this season, when the offense stopped moving the ball, the defense was left out on the field for too long and wore down. Buffalo scored all of their points in the second half, and all of the offensive production came after the three-minute mark of the third quarter.
To be fair, the Minutemen had the wind knocked out of their sails a bit when Johnson had a punt blocked early in the third quarter, which was then run back for a touchdown. The team responded well, as Mike Cox was able to punch the ball into the end zone from 3-yards out on the next possession, but after a botched extra-point snap, UMass never scored again.
All in all, the past two weeks were a turning point for the program. They were able to compete with both Akron and Buffalo, and avoided the 0-for season that had begun to stare them in the face. They seem to believe in themselves much more than when they were getting walloped by the likes of NIU and Vanderbilt and....well, almost everyone else they've played. Granted, Akron and UB are not the best teams in the MAC, but neither is UMass, and if they can at least stick around in the CMU game next week, they will be able to feel good about the way the season ended up, and quiet the critics second-guessing the move up.
UMass coach Charley Molnar got himself a Gatorade shower after that Akron win, which is whatever. I personally would reserve those for championships, but it has been a trying season, and Molnar has worked hard to get this team to perform. He was given the game ball in the locker room afterwards, and noted that the next time he wanted to feel the Gatorade was next year in Detroit. Bold statement, coach. I like it. But first, get another win.
One step at a time.