UMass football gashed by Southern Illinois at home
AMHERST — Last week, following the loss at Rutgers, University of Massachusetts football coach Walt Bell said one thing about his inexperienced football team concerned him the most.
"I think the great lesson," he said to reporters, "is that we can't let one bad play become another."
In Saturday's home opener, that lesson was either forgotten or not learned.
The Minutemen scored the game's first touchdown, but were outscored the rest of the way in a 45-20 defeat before 10,524 fans, most of whom had departed McGuirk Alumni Stadium long before the final seconds ticked off.
Against Rutgers, it was 41 unanswered points. Against Division I-FCS Southern Illinois it was 28 unanswered points in the second half.
The Minutemen, who trailed 17-13 at halftime, appeared poised to take the lead in the third quarter.
On the second play of the Salukis' opening drive, D.J. Davis had the ball stripped by linebacker Cole McCubrey and recovered by defensive lineman Billy Wooden on the SIU 20-yard line. UMass got a first down on the drive and had the ball first-and-goal at the 10. They went backwards on two plays before quarterback Randall West had a pass for Cam Roberson picked off by strong safety Jeremy Chinn, who returned it to the 41. Two plays later, Javon Williams Jr., running out of the Wildcat formation, went 64 yards for a touchdown that made it a two-score game. Those were the first of those 28 unanswered points.
"Honestly, I felt like with the second-half kickoff, we run down and knock them down. Defense forces the fumble. We run the ball right at them and we're successful. Then a really critical error sets us back a little bit," Bell said after the game. "Again, with an inexperienced football team, to have a setback like that in a situation to not carry that momentum forward and score, I feel like we didn't handle that very well.
"Again, that's learning to win."
It was the worst loss in McGuirk since Louisiana Tech beat UMass 56-28 back in 2016, and marked the first loss to a Division I-FCS team since losing 24-14 to Maine back in 2013.
While West started and went 9 for 17 for 125 yards and one interception, Andrew Brito came on to play starting in the second series of the third quarter. Brito, who finished up 6 of 10 for 73 yards and a 7-yard touchdown pass to Taylor Edwards in the third quarter, threw an interception on his first pass, when the ball deflected off the hands of Sadiq Palmer. Bell said that Saturday night was not the time to read into anything.
"No message at all. We had some decision-making issues, we had some misses, we had some forces. We were pressing and we threw the ball into coverage a couple of times," the first-year coach said. "I just felt like we wanted to give him a chance to play and see what happens.
"By no means does that mean that Randall's out forever or that Brito has been anointed as the starting quarterback. We're just trying to bring life to the team and give Andrew a chance."
UMass was penalized 10 times for 69 yards, five of those were pre-snap false starts on the offense. Four of them came in the first quarter, two came on successive plays, and that seemed to keep the Minutemen from getting the offense rolling.
The Minutemen were outgained 502 yards to 321. The Salukis, who were 2-9 a year ago, notched 21 first downs, and of the 502 yards, 281 of those came on three long plays where the UMass defense was gashed badly. Williams caught an 85-yard touchdown pass from Stone Labanowitz in the second quarter, D.J. Davis caught a 32-yard TD pass, and Williams scored on the 64-yard run out of the Wildcat.
"They weren't doing any thing crazy, to be honest with you. They were just making plays," UMass linebacker Jarvis Miller said. "I think it just comes down to executing and doing the little things, and getting back to the drawing board.
"We have to keep grinding."
UMass had taken advantage of a poor punt to start a drive on the Southern Illinois to score the first touchdown of the game. Southern Illinois marched to the UMass 27, but safety Joseph Norwood broke up a pass, giving UMass the ball.
On the first play of the next series, West — who had scored the game's first touchdown — dropped back and threw a beauty of a pass to OC Johnson Jr. Johnson could not hang on to what would have been a 73-yard touchdown pass. The UMass offense was never the same.
"A little bit of the air got let out there," Bell said after the game. "You hit that ball there, you go up 13 or 14-0, we had missed the extra point, and maybe it's a different ball game. But those are things that as a football program you have to learn.
"Your mentality, your attitude, where we are in the season, where we are in the game, we can't be up and down. It's okay to play with emotion, but we can't be emotional."
The defense, meanwhile seemed to pick up where it left off in last week's Rutgers game.
UMass came back from a 10-6 deficit to take a 13-10 lead with 1:26 left in the first half. It was a two-yard touchdown run by freshman Kevin Brown, capping off a six-play, 65-yard drive, and it appeared the Minutemen had regained the momentum. But a 75 yard drive and a 32-yard TD pass from Labanowitz to Davis with 8 seconds left put the Salukis back on the positive side of the scoreboard.
Bilal Ally had 87 yards rushing on 16 carries to lead the UMass statistical categories.
Howard Herman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @howardherman on Twitter, or 413-496-6253.
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