The University of Massachusetts will, in fact, play football this fall.
The Minutemen announced on Thursday that their first game of the 2020 season will take place on Saturday, Oct. 17, when they travel to Statesboro, Ga., for a game against Georgia Southern.
“Our team and staff have worked diligently to follow every protocol required of us and to create one of the safest environments to train in, in order to play games this fall,” UMass coach Walt Bell said in a statement. “Our players have trained hard in the weight room and in practice, and I’m excited they will now have the opportunity to compete at Georgia Southern in nine days.”
The opening came up rather quickly, according to UMass athletic director Ryan Bamford.
“Worked out a deal in the last 24 hours once GSU’s game with App. State was cancelled,” Bamford wrote in a text message to The Eagle.
The game is scheduled to kick off at 4 p.m., and will be televised by ESPNU.
Georgia Southern’s game with Sun Belt Conference rival Appalachian State had been scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 14, but was postponed because of COVID-19. Appalachian State had also postponed an Oct. 7 game against Louisiana due to positive COVID-19 tests and contact tracing. The Georgia Southern-App. State game will now be played on Dec. 12.
Had the game with UMass not come up, Georgia Southern would have gone three weeks without an opponent. The Eagles last played on Oct. 3 at Louisiana-Monroe, and with the Appalachian State postponement, would not have gone back on the field until Oct. 24 at Coastal Carolina.
“This game came together relatively quickly and I want to thank [Georgia Southern president Kyle] Marrero for his support in making this game happen, as well as UMass AD Ryan Bamford for moving expeditiously to get this game scheduled and executed,” Georgia Southern athletic director Jared Benko said in a statement.
UMass and Georgia Southern have a 2-2 lifetime record. The first-ever game between the Minutemen and the Eagles might have been the most impactful. UMass scored a 55-43 win over Georgia Southern on Dec. 19, 1998, in the NCAA Division 1-AA championship game, played in Chattanooga, Tenn. Marcel Shipp ran for 244 net yards and scored three touchdowns in a game where the Minutemen scored 17 points in the fourth quarter. Georgia Southern’s Adrian Peterson ran for 161 yards and scored two TDs in the loss.
Peterson, who went on to an All-Pro NFL career with the Minnesota Vikings, came back the next year and gained 333 yards and scored five touchdowns in a 38-21 win over the Minutemen in the 1-AA quarterfinals.
The teams then played a home-and-home as FBS teams, with UMass winning 55-20 in Amherst in 2017, but losing 34-13 in Statesboro the following year.
This will likely not be the only game on the truncated UMass schedule.
In that text message to the Eagle, Bamford wrote that this could be the first of several announcements coming about games.
“Working on more games now,” he wrote. “Have some very good leads to get us to 3-4 total games. Next announcement could come next week.”
That Oct. 17 date had been what the UMass coaches and administrators had been aiming for.
“[Tuesday] we had one of our longer and more physical practices,” Bell said on a Wednesday Zoom call with reporters. “We feel like we were kind of in shape to do what we did yesterday. [Wednesday] we knocked the volume down a little. We’re where we need to be right now. Hopefully, Oct. 17, we’ll have a launch date there. We’re hoping to be physically prepared, but also fresh enough to compete if called upon.
“I knew that was a likely scenario, so we’re hoping to be prepared for that weekend.”
Now that Bell knows who UMass will play and when they will play, he’s got about a week to determine his two-deep for Georgia Southern. That would include deciding on a starting quarterback.
“I think having an opponent and a date when we have to know will shape some of those decisions more than anything else,” Bell said.