It is often said by football coaches that a team makes its biggest improvement going from the first game to the second game.
“A lot,” University of Massachusetts senior linebacker Cole McCubrey said when asked if he felt the team made that leap.
“Especially after watching the [Georgia Southern] tape and seeing where went wrong and how close we were on certain plays,” he said. “We’ve been working on that. We know we need to be super-detailed in order to be successful on every play.”
Redshirt senior Larnel Coleman agrees.
“I think from Game One, we were just getting our feet under ourselves,” he said. “We’re getting better working as a unit. It’s going to help us moving forward.”
This is the first time UMass and Marshall have played since 2001. In that game, current Tampa Bay Bucs offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich threw for 331 yards and five touchdowns in a 49-20 win over UMass. That was when the Minutemen were a 1-AA team. The score was 28-20 at halftime.
The Minutemen get on a jet Friday and will travel to Huntington, W. Va., for a game against nationally-ranked Marshall. The 5-0 Thundering Herd are ranked 16th in this week’s Associated Press college football Top 25. They are 15th in this week’s USA Today/Amway Coaches Poll.
Marshall has yet to lose at home, having beaten Division I-FCS Eastern Kentucky, Appalachian State and Florida Atlantic on their home turf. The Thundering Herd of coach Doc Holliday is also 3-0 in Conference USA, having beaten FAU along with road wins at Louisiana Tech and Western Kentucky.
This game is being played because Marshall had to postpone a game against conference foe Florida International because FIU did not have enough players to participate safely this weekend. The Marshall-FIU game will now be played in December.
“We still have plenty of work to do,” UMass coach Walt Bell said after Wednesday’s practice. “I think our kids are excited to play. It’s been three weeks, a long time, a lot of practicing — two weeks of practice — and I think they’re antsy to play and ready to get back out there.”
In a Zoom conference on Monday, Holliday said that preparing for a team with only one game of tape isn’t easy. He also had praise for Bell and his staff for remaking the roster.
“They deserve an awful lot of credit because they’ve totally revamped that roster,” Holliday said. “You look at that team from what it was a year ago to what we saw last week, and it’s a totally different roster. Players are all totally different, and from a personnel standpoint, they’re a lot better than what they were a year ago.”
The Minutemen will be facing a squad that is 29th in the country in scoring offense (33.8 points per game), third in scoring defense (9.4 points per game), fifth in total defense (265 yards per game) and third in rushing defense (72.0 yards per game).
“Obviously, [Coach Doc Holliday] has been there for a long time, and they’ve had great runs. I remember when Rakeem Cato was there I think they had a 11 or 12 win team. This is another team that, in a normal year, is probably a 10-11-12 win football team. It’s a really good football team. The biggest thing, with this particular group, they’re very seasoned. The majority of the team is redshirt junior, junior, redshirt senior, with the exception of one or two kids. One of them, obviously, being the quarterback.
“This is a very veteran group, a group that has been through a lot together and won games together.”
The quarterback is redshirt freshman Grant Wells. In five games, the Charleston, W. Va., native has completed 80-of-125 passes for 1,110 yards, eight touchdowns and four interceptions. Four different Marshall receivers have caught at least 10 passes.
The big factor on offense for the Herd is Brenden Knox, a 6-foot-3, 223-pound running back, who has rushed for 556 net yards on 118 carries. He is averaging 111.2 yards per game, and has only recorded a loss of two yards. By the way, the Marshall running back is former Ohio State running back Pepe Pearson.
“I would say he’s a great athlete, runs real hard. He’s a bigger guy too,” said McCubrey. “Going against bigger backs that have that capability is always interesting. It’s something we have to work on, tacking the big back and because he’s athletic, covering him in space.”
Good news for Bell and the Minutemen comes from the fact that defensive end Jake Byzcko is healthy, and will not only play against Marshall, but will start. Byzcko started the first nine games last year before missing the final three contests with an injury.
That return gives the UMass defensive line a shot of much-needed experience. Redshirt senior Avien Peah made his first career appearance on the D-line against Georgia Southern.
The question of experience or inexperience always leads back to who will call signals for the Minutemen on Saturday.
The three quarterbacks listed on this week’s depth chart remain the same. Senior Mike Fallon, redshirt sophomore Josiah Johnson and true freshman Will Koch are all listed. It is in alphabetical order so Fallon is listed first. That’s how things started against Georgia Southern with Fallon getting the start and the others coming in.
“We’ll see. We will see,” said Bell, when asked about the dept chart at quarterback. “You asked me the other day if we started to see some separation. I’ll say yeah, but again, I’ve got to be a typical head coach and hold this thing off as long as humanly possible.”
By Saturday at 2:30 p.m., that could be answered.