In the aftermath of what could be one of several games — or one of one — University of Massachusetts football coach Walt Bell will have a lot to look at and evaluate. That’s kind of what this “free” football season could end up doing for the Minutemen.
“Those guys want to play. I can’t wait to get back together with them and watch the tape. We can be critical of ourselves as a staff. Our kids can be critical of themselves and what they need to improve on,” Bell said after Saturday’s 41-0 thrashing by Georgia Southern, “and go get better. That’s what we need to improve.
“We have to get all these young players and we’ve got to make them older.”
There will be a lot to digest when Bell and his staff go over the tape of the game. Obviously, they will work with the Minutemen in practice to improve some of what went bad and some of what went worse against the Eagles. Whether Bell will be able to lead his team out of a tunnel again this year remains to be seen, as additional games are not officially on the UMass calendar.
“If this young group can stay together and stay tight and survive whatever the future holds for us,” the second-year coach said, “we’re going to have a chance to be a good football program.”
Despite the score, not everything was sour milk.
Offensive lineThe Minutemen had three returning starters in left tackle Larnel Coleman, right tackle Brian Abois (who started the first seven games) and center Dalton Tomlinson (who started six games). The Minutemen had only two players among the 11 offensive linemen listed at under 300 pounds, which was something that Bell had often said he was concerned about last year and was happy with this year.
But on Saturday, UMass ran the ball 32 times for only 111 yards, for an average of 3.4 yards per attempt. Quarterback Will Koch, one of three quarterbacks played by Bell — and more on that later — led the Minutemen with 41 yards rushing on four carries. He had a long-gain of 25, the longest play from scrimmage in the game for the Minutemen. Running back Ellis Merriweather had only 21 net yards on 16 carries.
“We had some problems with some identification stuff, kind of struggled on the back side of some of our wide zone stuff. That’s really all I can tell you from the field,” Bell said in response to a question about the line. “To be honest with you, even though we’ve only had 16 or 17 practices and haven’t been able to have a full camp, I honestly in my heart thought we would run the football better.”
Quarterback playDuring last week, Bell said that all three quarterbacks listed on the depth chart would play. He was true to his word as Koch, Josiah Johnson and starter Mike Fallon all played. None seemed to earn gold stars for success. They could have earned stars for effort, but effort doesn’t necessarily get points on the scoreboard.
“We knew going in, with kind of limited practice, that’s what led us to go with Fallon to start the game, just simply because he’s been around and played some football,” Bell said. “I was really pleased with both those young guys. Moving forward, depending on who our next opponent is and hoping we get more chances to play, you’ll probably see all three of them again.”
Johnson is a redshirt sophomore, who played tight end last year. He was part of former coach Mark Whipple’s last recruiting class. Koch is a freshman who saw his first collegiate action on Saturday
Fallon and Johnson had one decent drive each. Fallon’s came late in the second quarter, when he marched the Minutemen from their 37-yard line into field goal territory. He had a big 21-yard scramble and threw a clutch 10-yard pass to Samuel Emilus on fourth down and nine yards to go. That drive came up empty because left-footed freshman kicker Cameron Carson hit the upright.
Johnson had a good drive late in the third quarter. It started on the UMass 35-yard line. He also converted a fourth-down play, on a 12-yard pass to Melvin Hill to keep a drive alive. Three plays later, Johnson did not get enough loft on a pass intended for tight end Jaret Pallotta, as Georgia Southern’s Darrell Baker Jr. made a very athletic play to pick off the pass.
“Knowing where we were and how quick the turnaround was, we only got 1 1/2 live scrimmage settings,” Bell said. “We just wanted a chance to get all three out there. We want to evaluate all three of them, find out where they are, and move forward.”
Eight different receivers were targeted by three quarterbacks. Emilus, who caught four passes for 28 yards, was targeted eight times. OC Johnson was targeted once, while Taylor Edwards was No. 2 on the hit list with three targets.
Secondary issuesUMass gave up only 21 passing yards in the second half to a team that runs the ball far more than it passes. The 107 yards given up in the first half ends up being a little misleading because 64 of those 107 yards accounted for three touchdowns.
The UMass pass defense made three really bad plays in the game, and each one cost the Minutemen six points.
On each of the three first-half touchdown passes, the Georgia Southern receivers were wide open and no defender was within at least five yards. The big one was the first TD, when Malik Murray had nobody around him and was able to scamper 47 yards to the end zone. It was the second-longest play from scrimmage of the day.
Bell told reporters that on the first touchdown, freshman “Sam” linebacker Nahji Logan got caught. He wasn’t the only one, considering the fact that the two outside backers were a freshman and a redshirt sophomore, and there were three newcomers in the secondary. The only veteran was sophomore Josh Wallace, who had two clutch pass breakups in the end zone.
“He’s a competitor. He’s an unbelievable kid, and competes no matter what the circumstance,” said Bell. “You can always count on Josh Wallace.”
Defensive front 7“I thought the biggest thing was they competed,” Bell said. “We’ve got some eye control things we have to clean up and some things very specific to Georgia Southern. Moving forward, I have no idea if we’ll play another triple option team. It’s a great learning experience for those guys.”
Inside linebackers Cole McCubrey and Mike Ruane led the team with nine and eight tackles, respectively. Outside backer Viczaril Alobwede, a true freshman was the No. 3 tackler with seven. Senior Avien Peah had two tackles for loss among his five stops. He had no tackles in 2019.
But in the second half, if you take away a 56-yard run by Wesley Kennedy III, the front seven held its own.
Georgia Southern ran the ball 16 times in the second half and nine runs were for fewer than seven yards. Three times, the UMass defense caught the Eagles for losses.
Now, the question will be can UMass fix what went wrong last weekend? More importantly, will the Minutemen get a chance to show that they have learned their lessons?