The Massachusetts Minutemen came into Saturday's game with the Florida International Golden Panthers on the verge of going 0-4 to begin the season for the fourth time in four years as an FBS program.
That streak ended on a cool and windy, gray afternoon in Amherst, and the Minutemen earned the first out of conference victory at the FBS level in program history as they defeated the Panthers by a score of 24-14.
Temperatures were hovering in the low 50s with a cool breeze at kickoff, and both UMass and FIU seemed to be affected by the weather at the start. The Minutemen received the opening kick, however their first drive ended inauspiciously on a 4th & 6 when QB Blake Frohnapfel scrambled for what looked like a sure first down only to slide too early and turn the ball over to the Panthers.
UMass' defense, which had an excellent all-around day, forced an FIU 3 and out, and on the following possession the Minutemen used their quick strike ability to jump out to a 7-0 lead. After a 14-yard run on their first play, Frohnapfel hit WR Marken Michel on a beautiful post route for a 57-yard TD pass.
FIU was again forced to punt by the UMass defense, and the ensuing UMass drive was near-surgical in its precision, running 16 plays and covering 87 yards. I say "near-surgical" because when it started it looked like the Panthers were going to be in for a long afternoon, but it ended with 6 plays inside the 3-yard line for UMass where they could not punch it in for a score, and a 19-yard field goal attempt from P Logan Laurent was blocked, adding even more fuel to the dumpster fire that is the UMass kicking game.
UMass did get on the board again midway through the second quarter on a drive helped along by two of FIU's numerous penalty calls on the day. Frohnapfel was actually intercepted on the drive's first play, but that was wiped out by a personal foul, and there was a separate unsportsmanlike conduct call two plays later that set the Minutemen up inside the FIU 30 yard line. Frohnapdel hit Michel on the key play of the drive, a 22-yard completion to give UMass a 1st & goal, and then Frohnapfel tossed a perfectly-weighted ball to WR Tajae Sharpe for his first TD reception of the season to give the Minutemen a 14-0 lead.
UMass, despite dominating the first half, has never been able to make things easy on themselves, and that was no different in this game when on their next possession Frohnapfel couldn't handle a shotgun snap and FIU picked up the recovery. It would prove costly as the short field allowed the Panthers to score a touchdown on a drive where they needed three 3rd down conversions to do so.
UMass did get the ball back with just over one minute to go in the first half, and their one-minute offense did an excellent job in getting them close to field goal range. Well, what would be field goal range for teams that don't have UMass' kicking situation. However, head coach Mark Whipple did send out Laurent, who took over the starting placekicker job this week after a competition with true freshman Michael Caggiano, to attempt a 43-yard field goal. The Panthers called two timeouts in a row in an attempt to ice Laurent, and then the Minutemen were guilty of an illegal snap penalty, pushing the try back to 48 yards. Given what we know about UMass kicking game, no one expected anything better than a miss, but Laurent stepped up and DRILLED the kick to put the Minutemen up 17-7 going into the half.
UMass outgained FIU 334-66 in the first half. FIU actually had 76 penalty yards in the first half, more than their total offense, yet UMass allowed them to remain close. It really can't be understated how big Laurent making that field goal at the end of the half was for the Minutemen's momentum.
The teams traded punts to begin the 3rd quarter, and UMass had finally begun to put together a solid drive when true freshman Sekai Lindsay fumbled on what would have been a 3rd down conversion and the Panthers again had a chance. They did not let the opportunity slip by, as they drove 13 plays and 63 yards, converting two 3rd downs and one 4th down en route to a 1-yard score from RB Alex Gardner to make the score 17-14 UMass right before the start of the 4th quarter.
UMass again found themselves in a game that they should have been up several scores yet were only up a field goal by the time the 4th quarter rolled around, and they needed to make sure they got the touchdown necessary to salt away their first OOC win. After trading punts to begin the 4th the UMass offense finally found the rhythm they began the game with and drove 62 yards in 8 plays for the decisive score. The key play on the drive was a beautifully executed screen pass from Frohnapfel to RB Jamal Wilson that picked up 30 yards, and the capper was a great fade from Frohnapfel to Michel in the back of the end zone for Michel's 2nd TD of the day.
The UMass defense came up with yet another big series on FIU's last drive, and after giving up one first down, made four straight great plays to hold FIU receivers to little or no gain and force the turnover on downs that helped ice the game.
It wasn't over right away though, as UMass took the ball after the FIU punt and killed the remainder of the clock, the key play a classic connection between Frohnapfel and Sharpe on a 4th & 5 for 6 yards that sealed the win.
UMass 3 Up/ 3 Down
QB Blake Frohnapfel - Frohnapfel had a handful of iffy moments in the game today, a couple times where perhaps he could have gotten rid of the ball, a couple passes behind receivers. But on the whole he was excellent, throwing for 363 yards, 3 TDs and 0 INTs (his one INT was overturned with a penalty) and displaying the skill and ability that made him the First-Team All-MAC quarterback. It could not have come at a better time for Froh either as the MAC schedule starts next week, and the Minutemen need him at his best. Hopefully this is the start of a trend.
WR Tajae Sharpe - Tajae is a beast, he proves it week in and week out, and there is no team outside of Notre Dame that has shown they can really slow him down. Sharpe caught 15 passes for 159 yards and his first TD of the season today, and had 11/128/1 in the first half. He was so open at times in that first half I almost think that FIU forgot who he was. The biggest question regarding Tajae for the rest of this season? What round in the NFL Draft will he be selected in.
WR Marken Michel - Michel had a great game today as well, and he has earned his spot here to make sure he's not overshadowed by Tajae. Michel caught 7 passes of his own for 113 yards and 2 TDs, and he continued to display the type of grit and determination that make him a favorite of the coaches. He is always willing to take a hit over the middle to make a play, and can be utilized as a weapon in numerous ways. His performance today was a great one.
Honorable Mention: UMass defense - The UMass defense had maybe their best day ever at the FBS level on Saturday, and that was without several key defensive linemen who were shelved with injuries. It turns out that may have been a game-changer as the much smaller, quicker lineup that UMass went with actually gave QB Alex McGough and the Panthers fits on the offensive line. Special shout out goes to LB John Robinson-Woodgett, who was all over the field today.
UMass' running game - While at points the run was effective for the Minutemen, on the whole it was a disappointment yet again. Last week's star RB Marquis Young carried the ball 5 times for 13 yards, and the leading rusher was RB Lorenzo Woodley with 31 yards on 7 carries. There's a combination of things working against the run game for the Minutemen right now, but the bottom line is it has to be better. Hopefully against conference defenses it will continue to improve.
UMass' execution - After all the praise we heaped on the offensive stars today for UMass you may question why this would be a 'down' category. But you would only question it if you didn't see the game. UMass left at least 3 touchdowns on the table in this game, possibly more, and it should have never been as close as it was. FIU was committing penalties at a record rate, and instead of capitalizing on those mistakes, UMass decided to make some of their own instead. They won this game in spite of the way the played, which can be a good thing or a bad thing, and in UMass' case it's the latter. They need to clean up their mistakes and stop killing their own momentum.
UMass' in-game production - This specifically refers to the PA announcer/music situation that has been an embarrassment at both home games so far this season. In the game against Temple, the referee actually had to warn the PA three times about playing music too close to the start of play. While everyone (including myself) got a chuckle out of the situation, the bottom line is that it could have cost UMass a penalty, but far worse it makes the game-day production look ridiculous. In the Temple game the PA announcer also consistently misidentified players on both sides and down & distance, another inexcusable mistake.
In Saturday's game, the PA had less of an issue with players/down & distance (though there were a couple of instances) but he did talk over both the music and the referee on numerous occasions. There was no referee/music battle Saturday, however the PA blared the stadium rock soundtrack over the band when they were attempting to play at least four times. That is ridiculous. This is college football, the band gets to play as often as it can. The fact that they had to fight the PA is truly an embarrassment, and the whole thing again made the production look completely third-rate.
If UMass wants to get in to a conference, any conference, they are going to have to fix the nonsense that's taking place with the PA. It may seem very inconsequential, but the fact is that any conference that is willing to extend an invitation to UMass is going to look at every single aspect of the athletic department and the game-day production surrounding the football team, down to the most infinitesimal detail. If the PA can't figure out who made a tackle or when to talk or when to not play music so the band can do their thing it makes UMass on the whole look stupid.
Memo to the UMass Athletic Department: fix this extremely simple part of the game day experience IMMEDIATELY; it should not be an issue in the first place.
Check out the highlights of the game below, courtesy of UMass Athletics' YouTube channel: