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Massachusetts Minutemen football: Minutemen find new ways to lose and look ahead to Ball State

The Massachusetts Minutemen have suffered two tough losses since Michael Traini and Jesse Allen last held a chat, and they face a road game in Indiana against the Ball State Cardinals this Saturday.

Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

Hustle Belt's UMass contributors, Michael Traini and Jesse Allen, took a week's hiatus from publishing a UMassChat as part of the necessary decompression from witnessing the Minutemen's performance against Kent State. But we couldn't stay away forever, and we're happy to bring you a new session talking about Kent, Toledo, Ball State, and what ails the Minutemen.

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Michael Traini: We're here to recap the last two Minutemen losses, both sad in their own right, and preview UMass' next game against Ball State. I recapped the Kent State game already, so give me your thoughts on that one.

Jesse Allen: It was really a game that felt straight out of 2013. The offense could not get anything going against a good but not spectacular defense that, going into the season, you'd think the offense would be able to carve up. Unfortunately for the Minutemen faithful, the offense has never gotten out of first gear this season. Whether it's Blake Frohnapfel, whose accuracy struggles from the prior season are exacerbated this season, the lack of a true second receiving option (which I'll touch on in a bit), or the completely mess at running back as Whipple cannot decide on who exactly the hot hand he should be playing is, the offense cannot find its footing.

Last season, the second target on the team was the big tight end Jean Sifrin. Replacing him this season, at least in volume, was supposed to be Rodney Mills. Mills, though, has been nothing short of an eyesore. Despite being targeted 14.4% of the time on passes, second most for the team, Mills has an abysmal 37% catch rate. Of the top six in target percentage, no others are below 60% in catch rate. I've heard the complaints that Frohnapfel's throws have been rough, but every other player on the team is managing. Unless there's a classic "player slept with another player's girlfriend" story here (there isn't, but they're always fun to read), there's no reason to suspect the balls thrown Mills way are any different from the balls thrown to any other player.

A lot of blame will be put on this game for Blake Frohnapfel running out the back of the endzone, but, like most symbolic plays, they aren't the root of the problem. The root of the problem is the number two target can't catch.

MT: Kent was a brutal watch from the stands, a helpless feeling slowly settling over the crowd once they realized that the Minutemen were not going to be able to get it done, on Homecoming no less, against a bad Golden Flashes team. It was definitely one of the worst losses the team has suffered since moving up, and sadly that's really saying something.

They followed it up last week with Toledo at Gillette stadium, and the did something no one, not even the most die-hard of Minutemen fans thought they could do: they jumped out to an early lead, and looked GREAT in the process. They were executing in the passing game and the run game, they were making their blocks, they were making the tough catches, and the defense, the DEFENSE, was disrupting the Rockets powerful ground game and forcing Phillip Ely into bad turnovers, picking three balls off en route to 28-10 advantage. They even had the ball 1st & goal with 30 seconds to go, and were receiving the 2nd half kickoff. All they needed was to get some points to close out the 1st half on a high note and they would be in a great spot.

But UMass doesn't tend to do things most college football teams would do. They usually end up finding a new way to fall flat on their face, and that's exactly what happened on Saturday. 3rd & goal from the 3-yard line, six seconds left on the clock. The Minutemen attempt a quick pass that if it falls incomplete, they still have time for a chip shot to go up 21. But Blake Frohnapfel made arguably the worst read I've ever seen and turned what should be a sure boost for UMass going into halftime into another crushing turnover. The one thing you cannot do in a situation like that is turn the ball over, but Frohnapfel did and the Minutemen never recovered.

Now I certainly don't think anyone, certainly not you or I, ever expected the Minutemen to beat Toledo. Given their inconsistent at best performances and penchant for blowing games, defeating the #19 team in the country was never really on the table. But had they scored a TD, or even gotten a FG, it would have been a REAL interesting 2nd half. Unfortunately all it takes is one bad turnover and the Minutemen can never recover. That, coupled with their horrendous track record in 2nd halves this season, led to giving up 35 unanswered points in the final 30 minutes en route to the 52-35 loss.

Would points at the end of the first half instead of a bad turnover have affected the outcome in the end? Honestly, probably not. The Minutemen have been so poor at adjusting after halftime on both offense and defense that it's likely Toledo would have been able to bounce back regardless. But it would have been nice to see what they could have done had they gone into halftime on a high like they should have.

It leads me to my question for you: What do you think is the main cause behind UMass' 2nd half struggles? Personally I see a combination of factors but coaching deficiencies are at the top. What's your take?

JA: I honestly have no clue, as there's nothing that passes the eye test for me as "the reason". My first thought was that opposing coaches are picking up on something in the first half and exploiting it in the second half, but by now they'd have enough tape to exploit it from the start of the game.

I looked through each game this year, and the results are shocking. UMass has scored a total of 14 third quarter points. That's not per game. That's TOTAL. Even worse: All 14 points occurred against Bowling Green. That's six shutouts in seven games in the third quarter. In the fourth quarter, things only get slightly better. In five of seven games total the Minutemen have scored, but they have yet to score more than seven fourth quarter points in a single game. Twice this season they've been shut out completely in the second half.

If we're comparing halves, the Minutemen have scored 123 points in the first half compared to just 48 points in the second. This isn't just an issue, it's the issue. You can talk about how the defense needs to adjust at half, but at least they're consistent. They've let up 138 first half points and 139 second half points (though they have shown a proclivity for being torched in the middle, with 86 points in the second and 95 points in the third). If the defense aims to be aggressive, and if they force turnovers, they'll be successful. But the narrative that the defense's lack of depth is tiring them out for the second half has holes since they're just as bad in the second quarter.

The offense though is baffling. Going back to the Toledo game, they shot out of the gate thanks to a few turnovers, but repeated three and outs in the second half just left the defense out on the field out to dry. The defense won't force six interceptions a game, and the offense has to sustain itself in order for the Minutemen to be competitive. Whatever the issue is at halftime needs to be looked at from an offensive stand point. I know the defense takes a brunt of the blame but the defense is consistent, albeit consistently bad. It's the offense that needs to be fixed, and that's a scarier proposition.

MT: My issues with the 2nd halves start at the top, with the coaches, on both sides of the ball.

Defensively you mention that they're consistently bad, at sadly that is true. My main contention is that they shouldn't be. Now I'm not saying that they should be great, or hell, even good. But they should absolutely be better than they are. Depth is an issue, but not the issue on that side of the ball. They are undisciplined and not fundamentally sound, and those things get worse as a game goes on. They are also both serious coaching issues. They also never change from their initial game plan, even if their opposition makes a change and starts to carve them up. That's another bad look for DC Tom Masella, who hasn't had a single "good look" this season.

Offensively, I think it's time for Mark Whipple to give up the play-calling duties. You're spot on when you say that the offense is tragic once the 2nd half starts. They also fail to adjust and the cycle of "1st down incompletion, 2nd down draw for no gain, 3rd down incompletion, punt" that uses no game time and hangs the defense out is beyond tired. If they don't fix what ails them once the 2nd half begins it's not out of the question that they won't win another game this season.

On the flip side of that, their schedule is so weak that it wouldn't surprise me either if they ripped off 5 straight wins. It's such a conundrum watching this team and being totally unable to figure out what's gone wrong, yet knowing they have the talent to wins games in this conference with relative ease. But they still have a chance to improve on last year's win total, and that starts Halloween day against the Cardinals of Ball State. Give me your take on the impending match-up.

JA: It just becomes tough, eventually, to believe that what you thought would happen will happen. Maybe it's because I'm a Seattle Mariner fan who was promised this season would be the year, and again it wasn't. Maybe it's from being a Minutemen fan for so long (though basketball had its year, finally, with a tournament berth and first round loss).

Right now, I've completed the five stages of UMass football grief:

Colorado was denial: There's no chance we're that bad.

Temple was anger: HOW THE HELL DID WE LOSE THAT GAME?!?

Bowling Green was bargaining: Okay, we can still beat Kent State, sweep the last four, make a bowl.

Kent State was depression: Why do I watch this team?

Toledo was acceptance: This is what we are.

We're bad on defense, and it's probably not the coaches fault in an on-the-field way, but in more of a recruiting way. Our ends can't get to the quarterback: the defensive line ranks 127th in Havoc Rate. This allows the quarterback all day to throw the ball, and eventually someone will get open. Doesn't matter how good the secondary is (they've been quite good, actually) if the opposing quarterback has all day to throw.

What I wasn't expecting was such a regression on offense. Yes, the Minutemen lost Jean Sifrin, and that was no minor loss, but Mills (with the added targets) should have been able to come close to replicating the stat line, even with a different skill set. The running game had nowhere to go but up from last season, and Marquis Young is a find. Tajae Sharpe was and is still Tajae Sharpe. There's no reason that this offense should struggle out of halftime so badly, and until Whipple can either fix what's wrong or relinquish duties to someone who can, I can't expect this team to win any game. It's like last season after the loss to Miami, when the fans heard "this team doesn't know how to win" for the 20th time. Eventually it's a bigger issue than purely mindset, it's what the team is. This team is not a six win team, and it's questionable if it's even a four win team.

I guess that's three paragraphs to say I'm taking Ball State. Yourself?

MT: I'm going 35-27 UMass. I'm willing to put my faith in them perhaps one last time this year. They're up against it and into what should be competitive games against teams close to their level. But whatever Saturday brings, I'm not going to be surprised by it, because there's no surprise left being a Minutemen fan.

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Make sure you come back next week when Jesse and I hopefully have a Minutemen win to recap and will preview the match-up against Akron at Gillette Stadium. And tell your friends.