UMass shut out by UConn in Football Bowl Subdivision debut

Last modified: Friday, August 31, 2012
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EAST HARTFORD, Conn. - The University of Massachusetts learned the hard way there's a big difference between being a Bowl Subdivision team and being a competitive one.

In the Minutemen's FBS debut, Connecticut controlled Thursday's season opener from start to finish and rolled to a 37-0 win at Rentschler Field.

"No matter how hyped and how pepped and how ready the guys are, the first time they get into the game, you don't know what to expect," first-year coach Charley Molnar said after his first game on the UMass sidelines. "You'd like to think what you see in practice in the pressure situations that that would translate into success on the field. It doesn't always happen that way. We had a number of guys out there who just didn't translate what they did on the practice field onto the game field tonight. We'll be better next week and damn well better be."

UMass suffered its first shutout in 199 games, the last one coming in a 34-0 loss to Rhode Island on Sept. 30, 1995. The Minutemen play their home opener against Indiana at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough on Sept. 8.

"I know that we've gotten better," Molnar said. "I know where we are going. I'm disappointed in tonight. I'm shocked we didn't score. I'm shocked we didn't score quite a few times. I came into the game thinking we had made progress and that would start to show tonight and for whatever reason, it didn't. And for me to say why at this very moment, I've got some strong suspicions, but let me watch the film and then I can give you some more information as we go on."

Thursday's game could have been even worse. The UMass defense forced turnovers deep in its own territory on UConn's first two possessions of the second half. Linebacker Greg Hilliard forced and recovered a UConn fumble inside the 5-yard line on the Huskies' opening possession of the second half and, on the second possession, Antoine Tharpe intercepted a Chandler Whitmer pass at the 20.

But the ensuing UMass possession went nowhere and Taylor Mack blocked Jeff Strait's punt, which was recovered by Deshon Foxx at the goal line for the touchdown and a 27-0 lead.

The Minutemen gave up touchdowns in all three phases of the game, as UConn scored twice on running plays, once on a defensive interception return and on the blocked punt.

Molnar's first game ever as a head coach "was the longest day of my life. It went really fast up to kickoff and then after the first series or two, man it was long. I'm like, 'come on guys, let's get this thing going.' I tried to will it. I tried to say anything. I tried to think of everything and we just couldn't get uncorked. We just couldn't do it. It was like opening a bottle of soda with no fizz. No matter how much you shake it up, nothing could get going."

The defense, the lone relative bright spot, forced a pair of field goals to keep the game within two scores at 13-0 late in the second quarter until redshirt freshman quarterback Mike Wegzyn was intercepted by Dwayne Gratz, who returned it 37 yards down the sideline for a touchdown with 1:49 left in the half.

"The defense was on the field an awful lot, especially in the first half," Molnar said. "The inability of the offense to sustain drives, giving UConn a short field, it's just impossible to play great defense over and over again."

He added, "all in all, I thought the defense played about as well in spots as expected without getting any help from the offense and the kicking game. They were like out there by themselves."

Wegzyn struggled in his debut, completing 9 of 22 pass attempts for 56 yards. Freshman A.J. Doyle debuted in the fourth quarter and threw an incomplete pass on his lone attempt.

UConn utilized a quarterback combination of redshirt sophomores Chandler Whitmer and Scott McCummings. Whitmer, the main QB, finished 15 of 25 for 219 yards passing, while McCummings, who took over in wildcat formations, ran seven times for 15 yards and scored once.

"We prepared well for their tendencies with the different quarterbacks," senior UMass safety Darren Thellen said. "It wasn't that much of a challenge for us" to handle the way UConn utilized the duo.

Thellen provided the UMass highlight of the game late in the first quarter when he caused an interception while falling out of bounds on an attempted throwaway by Whitmer. The UConn quarterback's attempt was sailing high on the sideline when Thellen jumped with his feet inbounds, reached out and flipped it backward toward Tom Brandt, who caught the ball in play for the turnover.

But UMass' offense couldn't take advantage.

UConn set the tone early with a 12-play, 75-yard drive on its first possession. The Huskies capped it with a 1-yard run by Lyle McCombs with 5:59 left in the first quarter for a 7-0.

On the ensuing drive, Wegzyn completed a 9-yard pass to Rob Blanchflower on first down, but three penalties stalled the drive before it got started and UMass was forced to punt. A long return by Nick Williams gave UConn terrific field position at the UMass 30, but the defense held to force a Chad Christen field goal for a 10-0 lead.

The Minutemen went three-and-out and the Huskies marched from their own 30 to the UMass 19, where Christen connected again for a 13-0 lead.

UConn made it 20-0 on Gratz's interception return and shook off its two turnovers in the third quarter to tack on 14 second-half points.

Perry McIntyre had a game-high 12 tackles in the loss for UMass, while Brandt and Stanley Andre added six each. Chris Burns was the team's top rusher, finishing with 17 yards on 11 carries. Markem Michel caught three passes for 14 yards receiving, while Blanchflower had 17 yards on two receptions.

"In regards to FBS, we are where we need to be," Molnar said. "That's the division we are going to be successful in. It just didn't show tonight. My thoughts on the direction of the team hasn't wavered one single bit."

Jim Pignatiello can be reached at jpignatiello@gazettenet.com.