UMass football heads home to take on SIU this weekend

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AMHERST — It is said in college football that a team will improve the most from week one to week two. If that happens at McGuirk Alumni Stadium on Saturday, it could put the University of Massachusetts into the win column.

"We feel pretty good," cornerback Isaiah Rodgers said. "We came out in the first quarter [against Rutgers] pretty strong. It gave us potential and we fought to the end. Our main thing is focus on details, go out there this weekend, do our jobs and come out with a 'W.'"

Rodgers and the Minutemen will take to the turf for the home opener against Division I-FCS opponent Southern Illinois. Both teams will be looking for their first win of 2019. The Salukis lost their opener on the road against Southeast Missouri, losing 44-26, in a game that was eerily like UMass' loss to Rutgers last Friday.

In the game against the Big Ten Conference team, UMass led 21-7 after one quarter, but was outscored 41-0 the rest of the way. In Southern Illinois' opener, the Salukis led Southeast Missouri 14-7 with 5:44 left in the second quarter. Southeast Missouri scored the final 13 points of the second quarter and the first 17 of the third to win going away.

"I think the message has been very clear to our kids," UMass coach Walt Bell said earlier in the week. "From a messaging standpoint, they know exactly what we need to improve upon to have a chance to win a football game. We have to have a better Wednesday than we did [Tuesday]. We have to improve every day this week."

Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m., and the game will be broadcast live on NESN-Plus.

The game will mark the second time UMass and SIU have played each other. The last time came in the NCAA Division I-FCS tournament back in 2007. The Salukis beat the Minutemen 34-27 in the tournament's Elite Eight. Southern Illinois head coach Nick Hill was the quarterback for the Salukis that day, throwing for 216 yards and three touchdowns. SIU lost the next week to Delaware, led by current Denver Broncos quarterback Joe Flacco.

The Minutemen have nine underclassmen listed in its starting lineups on both sides of the ball. Three sophomores and a freshman are starting on offense while three sophomores and two freshmen start on defense. Thirty two players listed on the depth chart are either freshmen or sophomores.

"We played three or four freshman D-linemen, a couple of freshman receivers, a couple of freshman guys on the back end of the defense. We had a lot of really young people out there. A lot of up and down, but that's to be expected," Bell said. "Every rep those guys play, they're going to get better. Hopefully, as the season goes forward, they keep improving and getting better and really understand what we want to get done."

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Hill, who at 34 is younger than UMass coach Bell, is in his fourth year as the head coach in Carbondale. The Salukis were 2-9 last year.

In a press conference earlier in the week, he said that much like Bell, he is looking for Southern Illinois to improve as well.

"We were able to watch the Rutgers game," Hill said. "I know Coach Bell is building a program and is an excellent coach. We expect them to come out and play hard, and they're looking for their first win. They're going to want to clean things up from the first week too, and we have to expect for those things to be cleaned up and get their best effort."

UMass and Southern Illinois have something else in common, other than their opening-game outcomes. Randall West played his first game as a starter at quarterback for UMass, going 20 for 31 for 109 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Stone Labanowitz made his first start, going 16 for 28 for 217 yards. He threw one interception and did not throw a touchdown pass.

"We didn't win the football game and that's how you're graded as a quarterback," Hill said. "There's probably 8-to-12 plays that he has to make better decisions on."

Southern Illinois strong safety Jeremy Chinn is a standout. Chinn was named the top FCS prospect by the Senior Bowl. But starting inside linebacker Bryce Notree will not play. He was injured last week, and will be replaced by Bryson Strong.

"They'll be explosive on offense. We've got our work cut out for us defensively," Bell said. "In their football game, they ran the ball up and down the football field, played good football at times, had some critical mistakes at times in the football game, much like ourselves.

"I think you'll see two teams fighting, scratching and clawing to improve, and we'll see who takes the bigger step in week two."

Howard Herman can be reached at hherman@berkshireeagle.com, at @howardherman on Twitter, or 413-496-6253.


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