UMass football opens season at home against Hawaii

Mark Whipple and UMass open the 2017 football season against Hawaii at McGuirk.
AMHERST — For the first time since the University of Massachusetts took the step up to Division I-FBS status, the Minutemen won't have to travel for the season opener.

"We like playing here a lot better than at Foxborough," UMass tight end Adam Breneman said to head coach Mark Whipple during practice this summer.

After playing season openers at Gillette Stadium or on the road, the Minutemen will be at McGuirk Alumni Stadium Saturday to open the 2017 season against the University of Hawaii in a "Week 0" game. That designation allows certain teams to play games the week before the start of a season.

"Attitude-wise, we've been really good," Whipple said following Wednesday's UMass Sports Luncheon in the Berkshire Dining Commons on campus. "They're excited. I don't want to get them too excited.

"I want them focused on preparation and the game plan. We've installed most of it."

The Minutemen are coming off a 2-10 season, and begin 2017 as they ended 2016, playing the Rainbow Warriors.

Last year's game was played in Honolulu. In it, UMass battled from behind to tie the game at 40-all before Hawaii scored a late touchdown in the fourth quarter to notch the win.

Whipple has said on a number of occasions that this is his most talented team since returning in 2014.

"We have a lot of guys, on the O-line especially, where we started two freshmen last year," Whipple told The Eagle. "We've got eight guys who have actually been on the field in games. We've got some backups behind them. On the defensive line, everybody's played. The linebackers, Bryton Barr is new but he's played.

"We're really not putting anybody out there in the first quarter that hasn't played a game. That was not the case in the last three years."

Barr is a graduate transfer from Division I-FCS Towson. Barr, an All-State player in Pennsylvania coming out of high school, was injured at Towson and did not play in 2014 and 2015. He had 58 tackles last year as a senior.

Whipple said that quarterbacks Andrew Ford and Ross Comis will both see time against Hawaii. The depth chart in the pregame notes says that the No. 1 QB will be Ford or Comis.

"I have a plan," Whipple said to the audience at Wednesday's luncheon. "You guys will have to come out and see. I'll figure out something to help us win the game on Saturday."

Ford played against Hawaii last fall. He was 24 of 38 for 342 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.

Hawaii head coach Nick Rolovich led his team to a 7-7 record last year, winning the last two regular season games and finishing up with a win in the Hawaii Bowl.

Rolovich actually coached in Amherst, as he was an offensive coordinator under former Minuteman coach Charley Molnar.

The Rainbow Warriors are led by junior quarterback Dru Brown, who played in last year's win over the Minutemen.

Tailback Diocemy Saint Juste led the Rainbow Warriors with 1,006 net rushing yards, while the leading returning receiver is sophomore John Ursua, who caught 53 passes for 652 yards.

On defense, linebacker Jahlani Tavai and safety Trayvon Henderson are the top two returning tacklers from a year ago.

While it is usual in college football for non-conference teams to play each other in consecutive seasons, what UMass and Hawaii are doing is fairly unusual.

One does not normally see a team end the season with a team, and then start the next season by facing the same team.

"I don't know if it's ever happened when I've been coaching. We've looked at their whole [2016] season. They've got a good team," said Whipple. "They've got a new defensive coordinator and say they're going to play the same system. You try to prepare for a lot.

"There are always going to be things that come up in the first game. We just have to reset and play the next play."

Reach sports writer Howard Herman at 413-496-6253 or @howardherman.


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