UMass freshman quarterback Mike Wegzyn a keeper
Massachusetts quarterback Mike Wegzyn (11) passes the ball against Ohio during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 29, 2012, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Stew Milne) Purchase photo reprints »
Massachusetts running back Alan Williams (36) is tackled by Ohio defenders Nic Barber (97), Neal Huynh (93) and Keith Moore (38) during the third quarter of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 29, 2012, in Foxborough, Mass. Ohio defeated Massachusetts, 37-34. (AP Photo/Stew Milne) Purchase photo reprints »
Massachusetts head coach Charley Molnar during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game against Ohio Saturday, Sept. 29, 2012, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Stew Milne) Purchase photo reprints »
FOXBOROUGH - Mike Wegzyn didn’t have much time to get rid of the ball as a defender bore down on him. The University of Massachusetts redshirt freshman quarterback kept looking down the field, rolling to the right on the first-and-10 play from the Ohio 48-yard line.
Deion Walker wasn’t really open when Wegzyn fired the ball toward the right sideline as Keith Moore was covering him closely, but Wegzyn put the ball high knowing Walker was a good leaper and had a two-inch height advantage on Moore. If Walker didn’t catch it, it would have landed harmlessly out of bounds.
Not long ago, Wegzyn probably would have thrown the ball away safely. Five weeks ago he would have almost certainly been sacked.
“Wouldn’t have made it three weeks ago. Couldn’t make in practice. Wouldn’t have thought of doing it,” UMass coach Charley Molnar said. “And all of a sudden, the light just came on.”
Saturday he got the ball to Walker for a highlight-film first down and seven plays later, Wegzyn found Walker again, as the receiver ran under a perfect lob down the right side for a 26-yard touchdown that put UMass back ahead.
The Minutemen have still yet to win a game after Saturday’s 37-34 loss to Ohio. When they walked off the field following their season-opening loss to Connecticut it was hard to picture UMass winning any games. When it made the same exit Saturday, almost every game the rest of the season looks like a chance for a victory.
The most obvious difference is at quarterback. There weren’t many sets of eyes at Gillette Stadium Saturday, but those that were saw Wegzyn growing up right in from of them.
“He’s getting better and better each game,” said Walker, a fifth-year senior transfer from Notre Dame. “He’s learning the offense, learning to stay in the pocket and take a hit and deliver the throw, so we’re watching him grow.”
There were reasons for concern about Wegzyn early. Because Kellen Pagel was the returning starter, Wegzyn was not only looked at as the No. 2 option by many fans, but a No. 2 that had been recruited to be a Championship Subdivision quarterback. His play at UConn did nothing to suppress those concerns. He completed just 9-of-22 attempts for 56 yards and one interception. The Minutemen had just three first downs in the game and never threatened to score. Wegzyn looked like a temp, holding the position until Pagel got healthy or true freshman A.J. Doyle got acclimated to the college level.
But Wegzyn has gotten better every week, adding both poise and the volume of plays he’s capable of making. Compared to some of the dual-threat quarterbacks UMass has faced this season, Wegzyn doesn’t qualify as fast, but he’s become a smarter runner, recognizing when to take off, turning would-be short losses or incompletions into short gains. At 6-foot-5, 215-pounds, Wegzyn isn’t a slider at the end of runs either. On many occasions, he’s attacked contact looking for an extra yard.
“When I’m running the ball, I’m not afraid to put my shoulder down and get those extra yards to get the first” down, he said. “When I can get a hit on somebody, I’m not going to shy away.”
His teammates have taken notice.
“We know how tough he is, so we expect that. He’s not afraid to take a hit,” said senior receiver Alan Williams, who caught three touchdown passes from Wegzyn. “He does a great job getting the first downs when he gets flushed out of the pocket. He’s not afraid to put his shoulder down and run through the tackle.”
On Saturday, Wegzyn even delivered a memorable block to help earn Jordan Broadnax extra yards on an end-around, sparking a roar from the UMass sideline.
“We were just screaming. We were just cheering for him, man, because it was beautiful. That was football at its best, when your quarterback lays the wood on somebody,” said Molnar, who was impressed with the way Wegzyn got up after getting drilled on a roughing-the-passer penalty on the last drive of the game. “At quarterback, he’s pretty darn tough. He got blistered and he popped up at the end in that last series. A lot of guys would have laid there, debating did they want the pressure of the moment. He probably was not seeing very clearly. He got up and he took the challenge. I was really, really proud of him for that.”
Wegzyn is not a finished product. He’s still struggling to connect on deep balls and has still rushed or forced some throws. But on Saturday he proved be belonged at this level. To win in the Mid-American Conference, a quarterback that can put up big numbers is essential. Not only did Wegzyn shatter his career highs in yards (373) passing and touchdowns (four), but he outplayed Tyler Tettleton, the preseason favorite for MAC Player of the Year and earned some more confidence from his teammates in the process. Nobody thinks he’s a temp any more.
“He’s young. He’s a redshirt freshman and he’s put in a position where there’s a lot of pressure on him. It’s not only Division I but it’s gone from an FCS level to a transition year with new coaches,” junior tight end Rob Blanchflower said. “He showed that he can play with anyone. Ohio’s the best team the MAC and it was a close game. He made some great plays. He was running well and was making great passes, so all the respect in the world to Mike. He’s becoming a great player.”
Wegzyn believed that he and the offense would get better after UConn and he promised there’s still plenty in the tank.
“I always had faith that we were going to get here. This is just another step to me, though. I think we’ve got a long way to go still. We’re going to keep improving each week. I always had faith. I think this is a glimpse of how we can play.”