UMass vs. Maine Preview: Minutemen and Black Bears renew old rivalry

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The Minutemen renew an old FCS rivalry as they look for their first win of 2013.

Massachusetts and Maine have a unique relationship. Way back before Sam Adams started a brewery and everything changed for the better, the land now called Maine was actually part of Massachusetts. OK, so only the second part is true, but that doesn't change the fact that Saturday's matchup between the UMass Minutemen and Maine Black Bears promises to renew some feelings that have started to grow some weeds.

Saturday marks the 59th all-time meeting between Maine and UMass, but their first since 2011 when the Minutemen dropped a 32-21 decision on the road. Two of the founding members of the now-defunct Yankee Conference before both competed in the CAA, games between these teams used to be among the most important on each team's schedule both in terms of regional bragging rights and conference supremacy.

Everything is different now though. 2013 marks the first iteration of the rivalry with UMass residing in the FBS, the first time the teams will play at Gillette Stadium and likely the last time a game between the two will be a relative toss up.

UMass, fresh off a 45-0 drubbing on the road at Wisconsin, has had a week to unravel all that went wrong and build upon everything that went right. They won't have Shakur Nesmith or Jordan Broadnax, and they may not have Rob Blanchflower, but they will prominently feature a new defensive alignment -- a 3-4 as opposed to a 4-3 -- and return an offensive line that did a good job paving the way for Stacey Bedell and keeping Mike Wegzyn upright.

With those things in mind, here are some things to keep an eye on while taking in the game either at Gillette or on ESPN3.

Defensive Pressure

The front seven of the Minutemen didn't do much in the way of creating pressure against Joel Stave last week and with a less-Wisconsony offensive line to deal with this week those guys will need to get after the quarterback. Maine features a gunslinger in Marcus Wasilewski who, if given time to sit in the pocket, will absolutely do some damage.

The switch from the 4-3 alignment of last week has seen some casualties with Kassan Messiah and Justin Anderson slipping back on the depth chart in favor of Trey Seals at outside linebacker and one-less defensive line spot for Anderson. Seals and Jovan Santos-Knox will need to spearhead the pass rush on the outsides while the three inside linemen will need to generate some push in Wasilewski's face.

The secondary factors into this as well. Trey Dudley-Giles and Randall Jette are good enough athletes to stick on the Black Bear receivers and should make Wasilewski take that extra second the rush needs to get to him. Stave and Jared Abbrederis embarrassed them at times last weekend and its hard to imagine that happens again.

Quarterback Play

Wegzyn had himself a slightly better game than he did in last season's opener, but sub-100-yard performances on 9-for-23 passing simply won't get it done. Not against Wisconsin, not against Maine, not against anybody.

Charley Molnar and John Bond have likely been tweaking things in the offense to make things a bit easier on Wegzyn and the lack of a B1G pass rush should make life easier for the redshirt sophomore. But it still comes down to making throws to open receivers and he simply didn't do that enough against Wisconsin.

When that falls into place, everything else on that side of the ball will follow.

A.J. Doyle got some run last week against Wisconsin and actually looked pretty good. Molnar said he plans on having both quarterbacks play every week so it will be interesting to see how he factors into this one.

Prediction

I'm not in the business of handicapping, but I'll go ahead and say that the Minutemen beat the spread (3-point underdogs) and pull off the Vegas upset on the Black Bears.

If the Minutemen can put together a solid performance against Maine and win convincingly they should have the momentum they need to carry them into their last two non-conference games against Kansas St. and Vanderbilt. The first quarter and half of last week, coupled with a solid outing on Saturday will give us a pretty accurate picture of where UMass fits into the grand scheme of things in 2013.

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