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UMass football moves on to the next chapter

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - And that ends the first chapter of the 2012 University of Massachusetts football season.

Not only did Saturday's 63-13 loss to Michigan mark the completion of one quarter of the slate, but it also all but closed the pomp and circumstance, bells and whistles, dog and pony shows portion of the year.

The UConn game was not only a return to a rivalry but the start of the Bowl Subdivision era for the UMass. It was a game decades in the making and it felt that way. The Indiana game ushered in Gillette Stadium, plenty of ceremony and Bill Cosby. Michigan was ... well ... MICHIGAN. Any game against the winningest program in college football history in a stadium that would hold a fair percentage of Hampshire County's residents is a red-letter, circle-it-on-the-calendar kind of event.

All of those games were a big deal and a fun part of this process, but they're over now and for UMass, that's a good thing. Sure, this weekend marks the first game in the Mid-American Conference, but the fact that it's on the road at Miami (Ohio) means there likely won't be much ado.

If ceremony defined Part I of the season, Part II and beyond will be about progress, specifically how much the Minutemen make. Lost in being on the short end of some long scores so far this season were significant steps, albeit small ones, especially on offense, from week to week. But they need to make a lot more.

UMass has been pretty good at not turning the ball over on offense and producing some takeaways on defense, rare qualities from a team with the Minutemen's 0-3 record. They ran the ball effectively for the first time Saturday and started to develop a little rhythm against a team ranked No. 17 in the country.

Freshman quarterback Mike Wegzyn's command and poise have gotten better from game to game, although he, like the team, has plenty of room for more steps.

The defensive line has been solid and several players in the secondary - Darren Thellen, Christian Birt and when he was healthy, Ed Saint-Vil - have shown the ability to make big plays. The sheer volume of good plays has increased. If that continues, it has to eventually turn into more success.

"I think each game we've made pretty substantial steps moving forward even thought the score didn't reflect it today," Wegzyn said Saturday. "We lost by a lot, but as an offense we took another step forward. Not as big a step as I wanted to see, but we're making progress offensively. I like the way we're coming along. It's looking promising."

Still there's a long way to go. Had this team upgraded in the middle or the end of the Don Brown-era when the Minutemen were among the top teams in the Championship Subdivision, they might have been a little closer to competitive right away.

But coming off three years of mediocrity, UMass has plenty of areas that need improvement. Staying healthy so certain position groups can better learn to play together wouldn't hurt either.

"The field should start to tilt a little more in our favor from a talent standpoint. We're still going to be out-talented in just about every game we play, but the talent level won't be nearly as severe," UMass coach Charley Molnar said. "Just the fact that we're hitting our fourth game, it doesn't matter who we play, we've got to be a little bit better.

"There'll be guys in the MAC that will be as good or better than anybody we've played all year," he added. "There's going to be guys in the MAC that are first-, second-, third-round draft picks that we've got to go up against. We don't have any draft picks, upper-class draft picks on our team. We don't have those kind of players. But when there's only one or two on the field you can kind of game-plan around them. When there's so many out there like today, everybody needs help."

Molnar and the coaching staff's next test will be keeping the players' belief in themselves and morale high while not letting them grow accepting of defeat. There are still some tough game ahead. Narrowing the margins would be a good start. Winning some games, and learning how to win games, before the season is out would go a long way.

So now begins chapter two. History has been made by being here. Progress has to be next.

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Follow UMass coverage on Twitter at twitter.com/GazetteUMass. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.

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