Things were looking up for the UMass Minutemen early in their 24-7 loss to the Vanderbilt Commodores on Saturday. They were controlling the ball, forcing turnovers and generally looking like a competitive college football team on both sides of the ball. But then injuries and a lack of depth left the Minutemen looking to claw back into a game that slipped away to the tune of 17 unanswered Vandy points.
A.J. Doyle came out with another solid performance, but was sidelined with an injury in the third quarter. Stacey Bedell and Lorenzo Woodley each looked good in spurts, but both went to the sideline with injuries of their own. Rob Blanchflower, who had been the main injury concern through the first three games of the year, returned from injury, stayed healthy and posted a solid stat line in his first game.
Injuries are never welcome, but for a team that is already a slave to its lack of depth, injuries can be the difference between a program-defining win over an SEC team (albeit a third-tier program) and another three-score loss. The lack of depth also comes to bear in the later stages of games of the defensive end where UMass is especially thin.
UMass switched to playing a 4-3 defensive front and while the d-line looked good in the first half, the extra lineman each play wore down the unit as a whole. Vanderbilt had two second-half drives of at least 80 yards and another that took 5:42 off the clock. Any unit would feel the burden of that many snaps, but those second-half possessions were not just the cause, but the effect of being worn down by all the snaps they took in the first half.
Time is what this program needs. Time to grow, time to build depth and time to get healthy. They can take care of that last part during their bye week but the other two will require more patience.
24-7 may not sound like anything close to a win, but for UMass it is another step in the right direction.
Other things of note
- Blanchflower was targeted 10 times by Doyle on the day and caught six of them for 40 yards. Mike Wegzyn found him for his other catch and pair of yards. They went to him immediately in their first trip to the red zone, although the play was waved off by a defensive pass interference call. Charley Molnar had no problem reincorporating his big tight end in his first game action, a good sign for the rest of the season.
- Tajae Sharpe has now surpassed all of his receiving numbers from last year in just four games. On the season, Sharpe has caught 28 passes for 241 yards and two touchdowns. He has provided both Wegzyn and Doyle with a reliable target on the outside and is on pace to catch 84 passes, a number that represents a true No. 1 target. Oh, and he's just a sophomore.
- Bedell, Woodley and Jamal Wilson combined to rush for 55 yards on 17 attempts on the day. Meanwhile, Doyle and Wegzyn rushed for 51 yards on 13 attempts from the quarterback position. That is five guys combining for 106 yards on the ground on 30 attempts. If there is any better way of representing what injuries do to an offense's momentum, I'm all ears.
- Blake Lucas missed a 45-yard field goal as time expired in the first half that would have sent the teams into the locker room tied. Lucas has demonstrated that he can hit from a very, very long way in practice but that ability hasn't translated to games as he is now 0-for-3 on kicks this season. No "Yay Special Teams!" this week.
- Kevin Byrne was the biggest beneficiary of the scheme change as the defensive lineman came up with nine total tackles and a forced fumble on Saturday. Justin Anderson came up with seven tackles of his own as the linemen finally made their way to the top of a stat sheet. Daniel Maynes had five tackles while fellow starter Galen Clemons notched two, including a half-tackle for loss.