Matt Vautour: UMass finds its motivation for 2015

Last modified: Tuesday, December 02, 2014

When the UMass football team left the field after Ball State, the optimism, which had been building all season, was at its peak.

The offense had been good all season, but on that night the maturing defense seemed to find itself playing well down the stretch to seal a win. With most of the roster coming back, the Minutemen seemed to be gathering steam toward 2015. It didn’t seem like a stretch that they could improve enough to move the many games they almost won in 2014 into the win column in 2015.

Even Blake Frohnapfel’s injury didn’t seem like that big a deal at the time. So what if he missed two meaningless games, as long as he was back for next year.

But the Minutemen have been bad on both sides of the ball in their last two games, the last of which was a 41-21 loss to Buffalo Friday. The last two games looked too much like the last two years for anyone’s taste.

Coach Mark Whipple wasn’t here for the back-to-back 1-11 Charley Molnar years, but he sounded disgusted after the game.

“That’s the frustrating part. Even though we didn’t win, we were prepared at Toledo and we were against Ball State,” Whipple said. “We’ve got to look into it. I thought they would be prepared to play. But when you do things in the first quarter that you didn’t in practice — line up wrong, blow coverages — something is not right. So we’ve got to dig down deep.”

Asked what his staff would do next to lay the groundwork for future success, Whipple didn’t wait for the end of the question before he started spelling.

“R-E-C-R-U-I-T. We certainly don’t have enough talent. Not even close,” he said. “That’s priority No. 1.”

Getting better players always helps, but some of Whipple’s frustration likely stemmed from Friday’s loss still being too fresh in his mind. UMass has flaws, but it’s not absurd to think that with a healthy Frohnapfel, the Minutemen could have won Friday. The defense played lousy, but kept the game in range until midway through the third quarter. If the offense was better the defensive shortcomings could have been better hidden.

The roster more likely needs a few key additions not an overhaul.

UMass looked liked a team that had enough talent to be bowl eligible, but couldn’t close out winnable games against Bowling Green, Miami (Ohio), Vanderbilt, Colorado and even Toledo. Nobody in the MAC loses less talent than the Minutemen and the nonconference schedule is more manageable.

UMass only loses five seniors. Of that group only Stanley Andre and Daniel Maynes made noticeable impacts. Penn State transfer Alex Kenney was disappointing at wide receiver. Punter Brian McDonald, who was terrific Friday, was a below average punter this season. Quayshun Smith was a good special teams player, but those aren’t irreplaceable.

Maynes, who arrived as a walk-on, has outperformed expectations, but the combination of Robert Kitching, Sha-ki Holiness and Peter Angeh seems capable of filling the hole. Maynes himself has raved about their collective future.

Andre made 17 tackles Friday. His loss as a player and as a leader is not insignificant. But the hope is that Shane Huber, the talented linebacker who is taking a redshirt this season after an injury last year, can step in.

The toughest loss would be if Jean Sifrin decides to turn pro. Tight ends that are 6-foot-7 with great hands are hard for elite teams to find. They’re even scarcer in the MAC. If Sifrin leaves Rodney Mills, who played H-back well this season, likely slides into that spot and while he’s not Sifrin, he’s better than average.

UMass will need to solve its kicking woes. It would be stunning if there isn’t a junior college or fifth-year transfer kicker on the roster next year. Newcomers with experience will likely arrive at some other positions too. Depth across the roster should be better. Even if Frohnapfel gets hurt again, Whipple will have more options to choose from as A.J. Doyle and Ross Comis will no longer be protecting redshirts.

If nothing else, the last two games should eliminate any offseason complacency as the Minutemen leave 2014 with a bad taste in their mouth. Motivation will be easy to find.

“I just have motivation to get into the offseason and get ready for the next season because I know how good this team is, I know how good we are,” junior linebacker Jovan Santos-Knox said. “I’m in a whole other zone right now, just ready. I’m already picturing how to get started. I want to get started tomorrow. If we had a chance, I’d come back tomorrow and look at the film and put it behind us and get in that weight room.”

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