What the hell is going on with the Minutemen?
It's a good question. This team does not look like the scrappy upstarts that took then-undefeated Ohio to the final whistle just over a month ago. It does not look like the team that put up a tough fight against Miami the week prior to that, falling in the end but showing promise. It does not look like the team that was showing consistent improvement, week to week, both in the box score and by the eye test.
This team looks spent.
The fire, poise, and heart that they showed just a few weeks ago seems to be slipping. Yes, the team still comes into games fired up, ready to play, and ready to work. As the weeks go on, however, they seem to be letting up earlier and earlier in the game.
Is this a product of the team playing the hardest stretch of their schedule? Western Michigan surely has the talent to be better than their current record. Bowling Green is one of the top teams in the conference. Vanderbilt, though hovering around .500, is doing so in an always-great SEC. Northern Illinois might just be the best team in the MAC, and one of the best in the country.
It's a daunting stretch for sure, but really isn't much tougher than their first five games. So what's the difference? It's almost as if they left everything out on the field against Ohio, looked at themselves in the mirror afterwards and said, "we played the best we can and that still wasn't good enough. Screw it."
But that can't be what they think. They can't just be accepting the expectations put upon them by outsiders and playing to that level. I can still see flashes of grit and grind when I watch their games. UMass played Bowling Green to a 7-0 score at halftime. They held that Vanderbilt team to only seven points for most of the first half in a hostile environment before turnovers and sloppy play allowed the game to open up. Their defense is still strong, at least in the beginning of games.
If this thought of "we're not good enough to compete" is starting to permeate the locker room, that's on coach Charley Molnar. Granted, lots of these players aren't "his guys," but he is their coach, and this is his team.
The point that he didn't recruit these kids, as he has brought up in the past, should be moot. Molnar simply can't let them quit on themselves during these games. His frustration with the team is becoming more apparent, and frankly, if he's frustrated, fans should be too. He knows what is going on in the locker room, on the practice field, and in-game more than anyone else around the Minutemen.
After the NIU game he was quoted as saying, "Our guys usually finish the game each and every week that we've played, and today I was a little bit disappointed. I didn't think that every guy played until the end of the game. I think some of the guys started to think about the trip home and getting out of DeKalb and not finishing the afternoon the way I'd like to see it get done." Soundbites like that speak for themselves.
After that embarrassing loss, Molnar better have some strong words to this team. Now is not the time to get down on them, when they are at their lowest. Molnar needs to pick them up and help them succeed. They have the talent and the skill - they have showed it in bits and pieces all year. All they need is a complete effort and good things will happen. I suppose we will see the effect, if any, Molnar had on the team during the game this upcoming weekend.
Luckily (or mercifully), the last three games look to be the most winnable for UMass. They play at Akron this weekend, another team that has had its share of struggles, before finishing up this inaugural campaign hosting Buffalo and CMU.
Akron is still winless against the FBS, while Buffalo picked up their first FBS win this week against Miami University. CMU is one of the more mysterious teams in the conference, as they have played one of the harder schedules in the conference and have yet to find their identity.
Regardless of how this team plays the rest of the season, no one should go winless in football. It's too random of a game. Too much has to go wrong, and this team has put in too much work to get no reward. Unfortunately for UMass, that prospect is becoming a little too real.
If the now-thinkable does happen, they would be only the fifth UMass team to finish without a win and the first since the 1927 Massachusetts Aggies, who dropped seven straight after opening their season with a tie. I'm pretty confident that the 2012 Minutemen want no part of that club.
If UMass can come out of one of these last three games with a win, we can look back at this season as one in which a very young team tried their best each week to adjust to the sharp learning curve that is playing in the FBS. If not, well, expect a lot of second-guessing and boo-birds to come out against them.