Matt Vautour: Close not good enough for UMass this time

Last modified: Saturday, October 10, 2015

A year ago, coming this close to beating a good team would have been cause of excitement for the UMass football team.

Temple spent the first two weeks of its season dominating Penn State, an accomplishment in any year, and Cincinnati, the favorite to win the American Athletic Conference, the league UMass is hoping to someday be invited to join. The Owls were just outside the top 25. Nobody expected the Minutemen to win. ESPN’s Gameday pundits talked about the game briefly Saturday morning because of Temple’s early success and made an Owl win seem like a foregone conclusion. But it took a collection of bizarre events to deal the Minutemen a 25-23 loss. Most teams could chalk that up to bad luck.

But in 14 games under coach Mark Whipple, the best thing anyone can say about UMass so far is that it’s a team that is really good at almost winning big games. Their stories about big fish that got away rival any angler’s. Saturday’s loss might be the most absurd of all. A year go, they came close against Vanderbilt, Bowling Green, Toledo, Miami (Ohio) and Colorado. Close last year was good. UMass was so bad, so hard to watch and so often blown out in 2012 and 2013 that competitive was a giant step.

But when the bad luck of 2014 carries over, it becomes time to stop blaming misfortune.

Whipple, who ripped his team, his staff and himself after getting blown out at Colorado, smartly chose to stay positive after this one. Blasting his already hurting team might have pushed it away. Instead, he called the game the most fun he’s had coaching since he returned to Amherst last year, presumably until the final minute or so.

There were things to be optimistic about. The Minutemen were much better than last week, especially on defense. After getting shredded by Colorado’s rushing attack, the UMass defense played well. It bottled up Jahad Thomas, who was among the nation’s leading rushers, and forced eight punts. It forced three turnovers and sacked quarterback P.J. Walker twice. Most importantly they finished tackles and were far more physical.

On offense, Tajae Sharpe remained dominant and Rodney Mills, who’s had some early drop problems, caught five balls for 104 yards. Blake Frohnapfel still hasn’t hit his rhythm, but he was better too.

“The guys were into it on the sideline. You could hear the crowd. We played our style of football,” Whipple said. “They made plays, were physical and were fun to be around. ... There was a lot more good than bad against a defense that’s done a lot of good things against teams that are suppose to be better than us. I feel a lot better today than I did last Saturday.”

To feel better again next Saturday will be hard. The Minutemen are at Notre Dame, which figures to be one of the hardest, if not the hardest game they’ve played since moving up. Barring a huge upset, UMass will be 0-3 with nine games left. To fulfill its goal of bowl eligibility it would have to win six of its last nine games.

Somewhere along the way, the Minutemen are going to have to beat a good team for that to happen. Their five wins as an FBS team have all come against bottom-end MAC teams. Beating a good team has to be the next plateau if they’re going to move forward.

They missed a prime chance on Saturday.

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