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Massachusetts Minutemen football: Can the Minutemen still go bowling?

The Massachusetts Minutemen are coming off of a big loss at the hands of the BGSU Falcons and play their Homecoming game this coming Saturday against the Kent State Golden Flashes. UMass' Hustle Belt contributors, Michael Traini and Jesse Allen, get together for their weekly chat to update the Minutemen's progress this season.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

We're back again in the second of a weekly (or more) series of chats we'll be having on the Massachusetts Minutemen football team and their progress throughout the 2015 season. Make sure you check out our inaugural chat about the Minutemen's out-of-conference exploits here.

This week Jesse and I talk kicking, defense, Homecoming, and more, and we throw the word count out the window to do it. Just make sure you don't leave half way though.


Jesse Allen: Well, The Minutemen were just run out of the stadium for their first game in MAC play. Coming off a close loss last season, Bowling Green (now with normal starter Matt Johnson) showed that last year was a fluke. I saw you had some strong takes on Twitter on the defense, the kicking, and the lack of changes. Hit me with the good stuff.

Michael Traini: The takes were hot on Saturday, can't deny that. We'll start with the kicking game, since that to me is the easiest to fix. A quick review:

Blake Lucas lost his job as starting placekicker after having a PAT blocked against Temple (we all know the rest of that story) and then having his next PAT blocked at Notre Dame. Head coach Mark Whipple brought in true freshman Michael Caggiano to finish off placekicking against Notre Dame, and punter Logan Laurent has been handling the duties since.

For some unknown reason, Lucas got to keep his job as a kickoff specialist, and starting with the game against FIU, that's all Lucas has been called upon to do. In that game, he put one of his kickoffs out of bounds. In last Saturday's game against Bowling Green, he did that twice more.

I think most of our readers are smart football people, but for those that might wonder why this is worth us using column inches on, let me tell you. First of all, it's a penalty, and it sets the opposing team up with good field position at their own 35-yard line as opposed to their own 25 on a touchback or worse if the kick coverage is good. Second, it's almost impossible to do, as a football field is just over 53 yards wide. For a kicker at the FBS level to not be able to take a running start at a ball set on a tee and keep it within a 50+ yard spectrum is inexcusable. Lucas has done it three times in two weeks.

Now no kicker is perfect, everyone can make a mistake or have a bad kick, so such an issue is allowable maybe once in a season in my opinion for a kicker who is not a liability. The easy fix? Let Caggiano handle the kickoffs and keep Lucas on the bench unless there's a zombie apocalypse or something.

This week Whipple was asked about the issue with the kickoffs and instead of answering candidly or even saying he'd address the issue in practice, he chose to brush off the problem like it didn't even matter and state that the Minutemen had far bigger issues to deal with. Well, that is true, can't argue with that. The Minutemen, and specifically their defense, have much bigger issues. But to make jokes about how all putting kickoffs out of bounds did was make Bowling Green's touchdown drives shorter because they were going to score anyway isn't helping.

UMass has a lot to correct if they want to make sure this season doesn't go off the rails, and that includes the ongoing issues with the kicking game. While it is not as important as not giving up 725 yards to the opposing offense, it's something that needs to be corrected, not brushed off like an afterthought. As a fan, it BAFFLES me as to why Blake Lucas is continually allowed to put the Minutemen at a disadvantage.

UMass brought in a freshman kicker (Caggiano) immediately on scholarship as part of the last recruiting cycle. For those who don't know that's almost unheard of for kicking specialists. They also burned a chance to redshirt him this year as he played and scored points against Notre Dame. Why not let him get some game experience kicking off (and kicking for points) and keep Lucas on the bench? It makes no sense.

As of right now, per Whipple, Lucas is still handling kickoffs going forward.

We talk a lot about the Minutemen needing to not hurt themselves in order to win more games. This is a case right here of the coaching staff hurting the team's chances to win every time they let a kid who's only proven that he's a mistake waiting to happen continue to play. That needs to change.

As far as the Minutemen's defense is concerned, they are the biggest issue facing the team as the season progresses. They have given up 60+ points now twice in three weeks, and also gave up 48 to open the season.

They gave up 390 yards rushing and 558 total yards to Colorado.

They gave up 457 yards rushing and 681 total yards to Notre Dame

They gave up 725 yards total yards (206 rushing, 519 passing) to Bowling Green

Those are...distressing numbers, to say the least. In what is one of their "better" defensive performances this year, they still gave up 391 yards passing to Temple (out of 458 total) as in that game they made sure that Jahad Thomas would not beat them. Their best performance was against FIU, who they managed to hold to 188 yards of total offense. That game however looks more and more like an aberration given that FIU came out last Saturday and hung 518 yards of total offense and 52 points on UTEP. FIU also was their own worst enemy in Amherst, committing penalties and personal fouls at an alarming rate, and they just may have been affected by the chilly New England October day.

My main problem with defensive coordinator Tom Masella's defense is that for some reason he cannot or will not make adjustments based on what is happening in the current game. Against Colorado the Minutemen were getting run over, and no adjustments were made to try and stop that until the game was essentially over. He also claimed after the game that he was under the impression that Colorado was going to pass more than they did. Well that impression was seriously incorrect, and once he realized it, why did he not do anything about it?

Against Notre Dame the Minutemen were run over again with no attempt to try and adjust to prevent it. C.J. Prosise could have run the same off-tackle play literally every down and UMass wouldn't have been able to stop it. The defense, especially in the first half, was aggressive however and had some success creating some confusion, but they backed off that and Notre Dame took advantage in the second half and rapidly pulled away.

Last week against Bowling Green, the game plan was clearly to play very soft as to not get beat deep, thus they allowed Matt Johnson and the Falcon offense to shred them with short and intermediate routes and the running game. There was no pressure and Johnson had all day to pick the secondary apart. Why you wouldn't alter the game plan to try and include some consistent blitzing? It makes no sense because that was the only way you were ever going to slow Johnson down.

The UMass defense has talented players on it but in my opinion those players aren't being utilized to the best of their abilities because of the poor game-planning from the coaching staff. Another consistent issue the Minutemen have had is tackling, which is Football 101 and there is no excuse for it to be as lackadaisical as it has been, and it's on the coaches to fix.

Whatever Masella is doing it isn't working, and hasn't been since he took over the job. It's just one man's opinion, but I think UMass needs to make a change there. UMass may not be the most talented team on the defensive side of the ball, but they should be performing far better than they are.

Losing to Colorado, Notre Dame, and Bowling Green really isn't the issue for me. It's the manner in which they lost that is the most concerning, and that's because the defense didn't come to play and didn't adjust to what was in front of them. Facing Kent State next week we're likely to see another decent performance from the Minutemen defensive unit, but that's more on the opponent they're facing than themselves.

Now that I've taken up so much of everyone's time, it's Jesse's turn to dish out some hot takes. Tell me Jesse, what do you think the Minutemen need to address in order to get this season back on track?

JA: Well, for the five people who are still here (is this thing on, hello?), I'm going to disagree with you wholeheartedly on just about every point you made not related to the kicking unit. I'll start with the agreement though: Blake Lucas has no business being on a football field at this point. There's not much to say besides that.

Not to get political, so I'll speak in the abstract here, but whenever I see an argument about issue X and someone goes "why talk about X when issue Y is a much bigger deal?" I shake my head. As if you're not allowed to speak about one issue regardless of its nature because there are other issues as well. The kicking game might not be easily fixed, I can't speak to Caggiano's abilities in-game, but at this point he can't be worse than Blake Lucas. Saying the Minutemen can't comment on fixing the kicking game because there are more pressing concerns is not fair to the fans or the team.

Meanwhile, I can't agree with you on this season being off-track at all. Now I'm not one to take joy in any Minuteman loss; I drive four plus hours to home games (and another four home) which one would only do if they cared (and are a masochist). When UMass lost to Temple, I sat in the car silent with my girlfriend for two hours because I needed that time to process what just happened. But let me tell you, if I could find a silver lining in this BGSU loss it's that in the preseason, when I called BGSU a sure loss, everyone on Twitter was hounding me about how we lost close last year and were better this year. Am I so petty that I'm going to write an "I Told You So" here? Yes, yes I am.

But there's a point to all of that, and it's that this team is exactly where I thought it would be at this point. Look at the preview. Six wins. One of the first four. One of the next four. Four of the last four. 6-6, and that's probably too high (they can blow one of the last four). I stressed that in the beginning of the season. I stressed that after the Colorado loss in an article that was an extra point away from being framed. UMass is what we should have thought they were: A good offense and a deeply flawed defense. And if you think about it, why would this be surprising?

The Minutemen are the same team they were last season, and all the preseason hype should have never changed that thought. Teams don't change year to year by ​that much, unless something ​huge​ happens. Getting Blake Frohnapfel, that was ​huge​. You substantially changed the make-up of your offense, replacing a below-replacement (so below you're in the basement replacement) player in A.J. Doyle with a top-six MAC QB. Frohnapfel will probably sign as an undrafted free agent somewhere in the NFL. That's a ​huge upgrade, and the team changed as a result.

Meanwhile, the defense returned the same players, give or take a Kelton Brackett, and we spent the preseason talking about how they were ready. Everyone bought the hype. But in the end, come game day, it was the same defense that capitalized on bad QB's and one dimensional offenses and got marched off the field by competent QB's, read options, and good running backs.

Whipple can spend all preseason talking about how Robert Kitching is ready to take on triple-teams at nose tackle, or that Shane Huber is fully healthy and ready to make a difference, but that's not what happens. The difference between UMass-BGSU this year and UMass-BGSU last year? Matt Johnson. Something ​huge​. Against a backup QB (albeit one of the more interesting backup QBs and future starter in James Knapke), UMass gave up 47 points. Matt Johnson is not a backup QB. Matt Johnson is the best QB in the MAC. Game plan didn't matter, sometimes you're just outclassed.

So I guess my point is, the defense isn't the issue, because there is no issue. The defense was giving up 60 points against Notre Dame if Nick Saban was creating the schemes. Same with BGSU. They locked up a not terrible FIU team, held Temple to 25 points (23 on offense).  Randall Jette and Jovan Santos-Knox will do their best to make some big plays, and if it happens the Minutemen defense will have a good day. If not, if against a QB who limits mistakes, plays smart and picks his spots, the Minutemen are going to suffer. That's what its going to be, no matter who's out there setting schemes.

The Minutemen might be lucky. They have one win in the bank, and they have five more highly winnable games: Kent State (82%), Eastern Michigan (62%), Miami (88%), Akron (68%) and Buffalo (70%) and one tossup: Ball State (54%). I'm saying five of those six, for 6-6. Now, you are glass half-empty after this loss, while I'm "the glass exists and it has water in it." What are you thinking for end of season record?

MT: I wouldn't say my glass is half-empty, more that I'm a little disheartened at the way the team played at Bowling Green. I was hopeful they could ​maybe steal that game if they played well enough and caught some breaks, but I was not ​expecting​ them to win it at all; Bowling Green is too good a team. As for the rest of this season, I'm with you as far as 6-6. UMass should beat Kent St, EMU, Miami (OH), and Akron. Then they would have to grab a road win at either Ball St or Buffalo, which they can definitely do. UMass is very fortunate to have such a weak conference schedule this season.

Getting to even 5 wins is a good step in the right direction for this program, but being bowl-eligible is even bigger. While they may not make it, to be able to say you were .500 in your fourth season in FBS is a very positive step. Plus, you never know what might happen as far as the post-season goes. What if all the MAC bowl slots are filled but there is an issue finding enough eligible teams across all the conferences? If those conferences cannot fill all the tie-ins another eligible team can take their place. And with another record number of bowls and thus necessary eligible teams this season, it is something to watch for.

Something else to watch for: if Toledo fills the G5's New Year's Six bowl slot (not at all out of the question) that frees up one of the MAC's six bowl tie-ins this season (sorry Army, you aren't going to the Poinsettia Bowl this year). There's going to be a very tight race to fill all the MAC's tie-ins, with several potential teams teetering on the edge of 6-6. Bottom line for UMass is that you can't go if you aren't eligible.

Since we both think that UMass will at least be able to say they were eligible for a bowl, the question remains, will they get there? What do you think? And it's worth pointing out again that even if they don't go, it's a successful season for them to say that they could have gone.

JA: Too soon to tell. I'm sticking to my preseason prediction, 6-6, no bowl. Something tells me we'll be copy-pasting this whole conversation again after the Toledo game, but let's root for a victory over Kent State and hopefully have happier things to talk about come next week.

MT: Definitely. Speaking of next week, it's Homecoming for UMass and another game on campus at McGuirk stadium. I'm looking for two predictions from you on that one: score and attendance. What have you got?

JA: UMass 30, Kent State 17 in front of 15,000 fans (half of which will leave at halftime). Close us out with your prediction.

MT: I've got UMass 35, Kent State 14, and I'm thinking we'll see 16,000 fans there, many of which will head out at the half. Let's hope it's a better weekend for the Minutemen.


Keep coming back to the Belt for more chats between Jesse and I for the rest of the season. Next time we'll be talking about UMass hosting a ranked Toledo team at Gillette Stadium, and we may have a special edition for you on UMass' newest scheduling changes to have more games against fellow New England FBS members Boston College and UConn.