Column: Unexpected loss could help reveal character of UMass football team

Last modified: Friday, October 30, 2015

UMass coach Mark Whipple is likely going to learn something about his team this week.

How the Minutemen bounce back after an unexpected bad loss to Kent State will reveal and perhaps define the character of his football team.

Kent State is a team they’re supposed to beat, a team they dominated 40-17 last year. As the players walked off the field, they looked disheartened, embarrassed and confused. UMass’ other four losses weren’t great, but they weren’t that surprising either.

This 15-10 defeat will be hard for UMass to swallow. Goal after goal that the Minutemen had set are gradually becoming unreachable. A perfect record in Amherst is gone. A MAC Championship or even a trip to the MAC title game would be hard to reach now. To achieve bowl eligibility they’d have to at least win five of their last six games and won’t feel safe about getting an invitation unless they win all six. The optimism that greeted the start of the season has been replaced by simmering desperation. For a lot of teams that kind of loss with a 1-5 record can be a knockout blow.

Before Saturday’s game, any dispassionate evaluation of UMass’ record and schedule revealed that a winning record was still very attainable. The Minutemen’s six weakest opponents were in the schedule’s final seven games. According to ESPN’s FPI, a computer formula that ranks all the teams in the FBS, Kent, Miami (Ohio), Ball State, Eastern Michigan, Akron and Buffalo are all below Florida International, a team UMass beat already.

The Minutemen didn’t need to beat a good team to finish 7-5. It didn’t even need to beat a team with a record over .500.

Upsetting Toledo seemed like a long shot, but everybody else was beatable. Outside of the Rockets and Bowling Green, it looks like a down year for the MAC and some of the better teams like Northern Illinois and Western Michigan aren’t on UMass’ schedule this year.

But all of that assumed a win over Kent State. The Golden Flashes came in 2-4 with a good defense, but an offense that had been dreadful. They weren’t the worst team on UMass’ schedule, but they certainly weren’t one people were worried about. Even the growing number of pessimistic UMass fans assumed this one would go in the win column.

Whipple admitted he was worried about his players’ confidence.

“Yeah, I always worry about that. They’re kids, but they’re resilient. This was a big game, no question,” Whipple said. “They were all right in the locker room and we’ll get back to work on Monday afternoon. We’ve got a great Toledo team coming in and that’s all we can do.”

Whipple didn’t think the preseason expectations that surrounded his team, that came with bowl talk and award nomination had weighed his team down.

“We just have to play one good game together. We’ve played one good game together and that’s when we won,” Whipple said. “The offense did all right last week, defense didn’t. The offense wasn’t very good this week. We just have to play better.”

Against a better defense, UMass misses tight end Jean Sifrin, who was a matchup challenge for every opposing defense, and Jalen Williams, who was a reliable option at receiver. Sifrin turned pro after last season and Williams is out for the season.

More puzzling is the running game. The Minutemen rely more heavily on the pass, but last year they at least had a semblance of a ground attack. Whipple seems to have given up almost entirely on both Shadrach Abrokwah and Lorenzo Woodley. While Woodley never became the star people dreamed about when he chose UMass as a highly-touted recruit out of Florida, he’s shown the ability to produce when given a chance.

Even more puzzling is Abrokwah. A year ago, Whipple compared him to former NFL star Joe Morris after his four touchdown game against Eastern Michigan. But after the Colorado game when he fumbled in the third quarter, he’s been relegated to special teams. Freshmen Marquis Young and Sekai Lindsay, who have both fumbled since then too, seem to have far more trust from Whipple.

With six games in the books and six still to go, the season is only half over, but it doesn’t feel like that.

Will players start trying to do too much? It wouldn’t be the first time that a team, whose collective goals are slipping away, has players try to increase their own stats or exposure. But less selfishly there could be players that try to overextend their abilities in hopes of making up for others’ mistakes.

The players said the right things in the postgame.

“I’m not worried about that. We have strong guys in that locker room,” senior linebacker Jovan Santos-Knox said. “We’ve had tough losses here over the past years and we’ve always bounced back and kept spirits up in the locker room. I’m not worried about that. We have resilient guys. We should be good.”

With Toledo coming to Gillette next week, Frohnapfel saw an opportunity to atone for a bogey with a birdie.

“It’s disappointing and you never want to lose a game like that. Sitting down in the locker room, we’re talking about the chance we have against Toledo next week. They’re a ranked team. They come here and play us at Gillette and we have a great opportunity,” he said. “It’s a great challenge. For a lot of the guys on our team, this is the last time we’ll play football. It’s like, why get discouraged? You have to be optimistic about the season. Toledo will be a great challenge, but I think it’s one we’re excited for. They’re a great team. They’re a top 25 team. They definitely do a lot of things well. But it’s a chance to come back.”

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