Less than a month ago, the members of the University of Massachusetts football program had little to look forward to in the fall. Not having a schedule will do that.
Friday, the Minutemen took a charter jet to Georgia for their season opener.
“Especially, once we step on that plane and head there for the game. When we found out, we started game prep on Thursday. Just that day, it was so excited to be back in the swing of things,” UMass linebacker Cole McCubrey said.
Head coach Walt Bell and the Minutemen are bound for Statesboro, Ga., for a Saturday afternoon game against a Georgia Southern team that is 2-1. Kickoff is set for 4 p.m., and the game will be televised on ESPN2.
“It’s going to feel amazing,” running back Ellis Merriweather said in response to a question about running out of the tunnel before the game. “It’s going to feel better when we get that ‘W,’ so we better make sure that we’re locked in, we’re focused and we do our jobs.”
It also is ending up being the biggest stage UMass has played on in football, certainly since Bell was hired, but perhaps since the school made the move up to the FBS level.
The game was originally scheduled to be broadcast on ESPNU, the ESPN network with the lowest penetration rate. When the LSU-Florida game was postponed because of a spike in COVID-19 cases at Florida, ESPN moved its Texas A&M-Mississippi State game from ESPN2 to ESPN. That left an opening on the ESPN2 schedule.
“Anytime you’re on one of those big TV programs, it definitely gives you an extra edge and extra motivation knowing everybody’s going to be watching,” McCubrey said.
“When I walked off the field, my ops guy said the game was moved to the Deuce,” Bell said during a Wednesday Zoom call with reporters. “I didn’t even have a chance to tell the kids. It’s exciting to have that kind of audience and that kind of viewership. Hopefully, we’ll go out there and play good football — and create a bunch more Minuteman fans.”
UMass will play a team that is not only battle tested by having played three games, the Eagles of Chad Lunsford have been in three tight games.
Georgia Southern scored 21 consecutive points in the second half in the opener against Division I-FCS Campbell in a 27-26 win. The Eagles still needed to defend a two-point conversion with 15 seconds left in the game, and had it been successful, Georgia Southern would have lost its opener. The next week, the Eagles lost to Louisiana (Lafayette) 20-18. GSU had scored a touchdown and got the two-point conversion with 54 seconds left, to go up 18-17. Louisiana marched down and Nate Snyder kicked a game-winning, 53-yard field goal on the game’s final play.
Two weeks ago, GSU went to 2-1 with a 35-30 win over Louisiana-Monroe. ULM scored the final 13 points of the game, but could not catch up.
The Eagles are one of the few non-service academy teams that runs a triple option offense. The offense is run by redshirt-senior quarterback Shai Werts. Werts, who transferred to GSU from Auburn, has 558 yards in total offense in three games, running for 221 yards and throwing for 357 more. J.D. King is the top running back, while Khaleb Hood is his top receiving target.
GSU averages 272 yards per game on the ground, and the offense will present a major challenge to a defense that has 12 underclassmen (freshmen or sophomores) listed.
Bell did say, however, that the UMass offense may be as important to slowing down Georgia Southern as the defense is.
“Obviously, managing the shot clock. Number two is staying on the field on third downs. Third downs, especially in a game like this, become incredibly critical,” Bell said. “You’re going to have a three-and-out. That’s a matter of fact. That’s life in football. It happens at every level — high school, college, the NFL. No matter how good the offense is, you’re going to have a three-and-out. You’ve got to have the ability to stay on the field. You can’t afford multiple three-and-outs, can’t afford multiple three-and-outs in a half.
“We’ve got to do a great job converting on third down. To me, that’s the biggest thing.”
By the time the Minutemen land in Augusta, Ga., and board their buses for the 75-mile trip to Statesboro, Bell and his staff may have decided which one of Mike Fallon, Josiah Johnson or Will Koch will be the starting quarterback. One, two or three of them could see game action on Saturday.
The situation was similar, but not the same, as in Bell’s first season at the helm. Last year, he didn’t announce until the Tuesday of game week that Randall West would get the start over Andrew Brito in the game at Rutgers. That turned out to be three days before the kickoff.
“Obviously, from a decision-making standpoint, you have so much less time to truly establish who the guy is going to be,” Bell said. “I think the other thing is just how unique the situation itself is. How little time we’ve had, where we are, the time of year, and also there is some gamesmanship involved. They’ve played three games, we’ve played none.
“The closer that we can play this to the vest, the better it is for us.”
Fallon is a redshirt senior from Milton who had transferred to UMass from Division I-FCS Sacred Heart. He is the only one of the three quarterbacks listed on the depth chart who has taken snaps at quarterback. He went 2 for 2 for 40 yards in relief of Michael Curtis in UMass’ only win of 2019.
Ironically, the longest pass completion of Fallon’s career was a 34-yard toss to Johnson. Johnson, a redshirt sophomore, was part of former coach Mark Whipple’s final recruiting class. Johnson was a three-star, Wing-T quarterback at Bolles High School in Jacksonville, Fla., where he threw for 1,775 yards. He was moved to tight end last year, where he played in all 12 games.
The third quarterback in the mix is a true freshman from Niceville, Fla., and he threw for 1,739 yards with 18 touchdowns in 2019.
“Sometimes, when you make a decision, you want to make it as early as possible so the guys around him, you’re hoping the quarterback derives confidence from that public vote of confidence. Sometimes, that has a lot to do with it too,” Bell said. “I have zero doubt that who takes our first snap is going to have confidence.
“I’m comfortable with whoever goes out there, and excited to play ball.”