Ultimately, football games are judged by the stat sheet and the scoreboard. Judging by both, it was a rough opening day for the University of Massachusetts.
"Obviously the result isn't what we wanted," UMass coach Walt Bell said after the Minutemen opened 2020 by dropping a 41-0 decision at Georgia Southern Saturday afternoon.
"Just to get to this point, I'm really proud of our kids," he said in a Zoom conference after the game from Statesboro, Ga. "I'm proud of our administration and everything they've done. Obviously the result is not what you want. But every competitive opportunity we can get with a really young football team, we hope we get a chance to do that."
Mike Fallon got the start at quarterback, as his father Mike did a generation ago. Fallon finished 7 for 12 for only 41 yards. He was intercepted once.
All three quarterbacks listed on the depth chart, Fallon, Josiah Johnson and Will Koch got action on the field. Johnson completed 6-of-9 passes for 39 yards. He was picked off late in the third quarter while leading a UMass drive. That drive had started on the UMass 35, and the redshirt sophomore moved the team to the Georgia Southern 27. But Johnson never saw Georgia Southern corner Darrell Baker, who made an athletic play to pick off a pass intended for tight end Jaret Pallotta.
The Eagles, now 3-1, had the ball five times in the first half and scored four touchdowns. Quarterback Shai Werts had to get a game ball for the Eagles. The redshirt senior quarterback, who started his collegiate journey at Auburn of the SEC, accounted for almost half of his team's 436 yards in total offense. Werts completed 11-of-16 passes for 128 yards and three touchdown passes. He threw touchdown passes of 47 yards to Malik Murray, and two to tight end Beau Johnson of 8 and 10 yards. Werts also ran one in from four yards out.
Starting running back J.D. King did not get into the end zone, the transfer from Oklahoma State did gain 55 yards on nine carries.
While that was happening, the UMass offense was stuck in the mud for most of the first half. The Minutemen had two first downs until the final drive of the first half. One of those first downs came on a targeting call against GSU linebacker Todd Bradley, when he hit UMass running back in the helmet with the crown of his helmet.
"[The speed aspect] you don't catch up to until a drive or two in the game. You hope you survive it," Bell said. "We didn't help the defense very much offensively, and those guys were out there for a while. Huge respect to those guys. They're great at what they do. The biggest thing moving forward is we have to find a way to be productive on offense, to keep our defense out of bad situations."
It was, as Bell had talked about during the week, possibly the team's worst nightmare. He talked about controlling the "shot clock," maintaining possession to keep the Georgia Southern triple-option offense from working its magic. That never happened, as UMass never ran a drive longer than five plays until the last drive of the half.
The Eagles got the ball first and needed only five plays to go 75 yards and a touchdown. King kept the first drive alive when he gained three yards on third-and-2, giving Georgia Southern a first down on the UMass 47. On the next play, slot receiver Murray ran a slant, got behind the defense and went the distance.
The next touchdown followed a shanked punt by George Georgopoulos, giving the Eagles the ball on the UMass 39. It turned out to be a net eight-yard punt. Seven plays later, a wide open Johnson caught a pass from Werts. The point-after kick by Alex Raynor made it 14-0.
"On the first one, we had a freshman 'Sam' backer out there [Nahji Logan], they run that little option throwback. He kind of came off his guy." Bell said. "It's a young defense. That's what we talked about all week, eye discipline and eye control. We weren't good on some of those."
It was 28-0 before UMass' offense demonstrated what it could be capable of. Werts' four-yard touchdown run with 1:39 left in the half put the Eagles up four scores. Cam Roberson took the kickoff 36 yards to the UMass 37. From there, Fallon marched the Minutemen into scoring position. The redshirt senior, who was making his first career start, was 2 for 5 on that drive — including a clutch 10-yard pass play to Samuel Emilus on fourth-and-nine. Two plays later, the drive got to the Georgia Southern 21 yard line. Time was running out, so Bell sent redshirt freshman Cameron Carson on to attempt a 39-yard field goal. The left-footed kicker hit the ball off the upright, and the Minutemen went into the locker room down 28-0.
At halftime, UMass had only 67 yards in total offense to 290 for Georgia Southern, 42 of them coming on that final drive.
UMass got the ball to start the second half, but on the first play, Emilus could not catch a pass from Fallon that was a touch high. The ball deflected to corner Derrick Canteen, who returned it from the Georgia Southern 47 to the UMass 20. The Minutemen did hold on their 10, and forced the Eagles to kick a field goal. Alex Raynor made it 31-0 with a 27-yard field goal.
Had the UMass offense gone on a scoring drive after the defense came up big, the game might have looked different. Instead, running back Ellis Merriweather gained one yard on two carries, and a third-down pass from Fallon to Jared Cole came up a couple of yards shy of the sticks, forcing yet another punt and making it all but academic from there.
UMass 0 0 0 0 — 0
Georgia Southern 14 14 10 3 — 41
GS — Murray 47 pass from Werts (Raynor kick), 12:18.
GS — Johnson 8 pass from Werts (Raynor kick), 8:14.
GS — Johnson 10 pass from Werts (Raynor kick), 9:12.
GS — Werts 4 run (Raynor kick), 1:39.
GS — Raynor 27 FG, 13:08.
GS — Kennedy 56 run (Raynor kick), 6:40.
GS — Raynor 31 FG, 2:34.
RUSHING — UMass: Koch 4-41, Fallon 4-31, Merriweather 16-21, Johnson 5-18, Cole 2-2, Roberson 1-(minus-2). GSU: Kennedy 6-106, Werts 13-76, King 9-53, Wright 5-34, Tomlin 3-25, Green 2-9, LaRoche 3-6, Lewis 1-(minus-1).
PASSING — UMass: Fallon 7-12-1 41, Johnson 6-9-1 39. GSU: Werts 11-16-0-128.
RECEIVING — UMass: Emilus 4-28, Wise 2-6, Johnson 2-8, Edwards 2-5 Hill 1-12, Cole 1-7, Merriweather 1-4. GSU: Murray 4-68, Johnson 3-25, Smith 1-13, Lewis 1-11, Hood 1-7, Anderson 1-4.