‘I’d rather be talking about wins’: UMass football coach Don Brown tired of moral victories after Eastern Michigan defeat 

  • A swarm of UMass defenders tackle Eastern Michigan running back Samson Evans on Saturday at Rynearson Stadium in Ypsilanti, MI. UMASS ATHLETICS/CHRIS TUCCI

  • UMass' Nahji Logan puts pressure on Eastern Michigan quarterback Austin Smith on Saturday at Rynearson Stadium in Ypsilanti, MI. UMASS ATHLETICS/CHRIS TUCCI

  • UMass football head coach Don Brown huddles up with the team after practice Friday at McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Staff Writer
Published: 9/18/2023 7:50:28 PM
Modified: 9/18/2023 7:49:46 PM

AMHERST — Once again the UMass football team found itself in the thick of things late in a game. Just as the Minutemen did two Saturdays ago against Miami (Ohio), they stormed back from down multiple possessions and put themselves in position to steal one in the fourth quarter on the road at Eastern Michigan.

The Eagles were the ones to make the big difference-making plays in the final minutes of the contest to come out on top 19-17 on Saturday afternoon, bringing UMass’ record to 1-3 — and giving the Minutemen their third consecutive loss after opening the season with a win over New Mexico State.

“When you look at the effort, how hard they worked, you feel good,” UMass head coach Don Brown said after the game. “But I’m tired of talking about those kinds of things. I’d rather be talking about wins.” 

Quarterback Carlos Davis started his second straight game for UMass with season-opening starter Taisun Phommachanh still sidelined due to injury. The Minutemen offense had no trouble moving the ball with Davis in command. They racked up 464 total yards, had nine more first downs than Eastern Michigan (23-14), and enjoyed a five-minute time of possession advantage. Individually, some Minutemen had stellar days. UMass had four pass catchers total 50 or more receiving yards, led by Anthony Simpson’s 101 on four catches. Running back Kay’Ron Lynch Adams exploded for 129 yards and a touchdown on the ground, and Davis aired it out 41 times to put up 340 passing yards. There is no debate that the Minutemen offense is much further along than it was at this time a season ago.

“It’s not even a comparison,” Brown said in Monday’s press conference. “We did a good job recruiting. We have three new quarterbacks, counting our young buck (Ahmad Haston). We’ve got a healthy Kay’Ron (Lynch-Adams), and I mean legitimately healthy. And at receiver, we’re clearly much better in that picture, with (Anthony) Simpson leading the way. He kinda leads the group, but we’ve got a number of guys that can catch the ball...  And I think our offensive line is getting better on a week-to-week basis.”

But here’s the kick: the offense has struggled to hold on to the ball.

As much as there is no debate that this unit is head and shoulders above where it was in 2022, it’s also no debate that its biggest weakness is ball security. UMass’ first three possessions against the Eagles ended in turnovers — four out of its first five if you include a turnover on downs late in the first half. Davis’ three picks easily outweighed his 340 yards and one touchdown pass, according to Brown.

“You don’t win games. They’re good for accolades, but I’m good. If you don’t take care of the ball, you’re gonna have a hard time winning the game,” Brown said. “That’s being honest as a heart attack. And I’ll be honest with you, if we don’t turn the ball over, we’re not having this discussion right now.”

A Don Brown-led football team typically has a physical, stout defense, and that seemed to be the case on Saturday. UMass held Eastern Michigan to 157 yards through the air, and made life difficult for the Eagles on third down — converting only 25-percent of their opportunities. The Minutemen held them scoreless for 27 minutes and six seconds of game time, spanning from the early stages of the second quarter to the first minute of the fourth when Eastern Michigan’s kicker Jesus Gomez split the uprights from 45 yards out.

“When you look at us on defense, we had a third quarter shutout — which you’re always searching for, to come out of that locker room and have a really good third quarter,” Brown said. “Take the things that you made the adjustments on at the half and put them to good use.”

Late in the game, UMass hit on three straight chunk plays to set up inside the Eagles’ 10-yard line. Lynch-Adams punched in a score on the next play to give the Minutemen a 17-13 lead. It was the defense’s turn to come up clutch just as it had all game. But Austin Smith and Hamze El-Zayat spoiled the comeback with a 50-yard touchdown connection to win the game for Eastern Michigan.

Although the late score was heartbreaking, Brown believes that any time his defense can keep the opposition from scoring 20 points, it should give the team a very good chance at winning the game.

“The only touchdown we give up (in the second half) is with a minute and 20 (seconds) to go in the fourth quarter, but it cost you the football game...” Brown said. “… 19 points? Any time you’re in that vicinity, you’re gonna have a chance to win the game. But at the same time, we gotta tighten our belt, too, and if you wanna be dominating, you gotta stop that fourth quarter drive and continue to execute at a high level.”

Big plays are inevitable in a football game, even when a defense is playing in the perfect spot. However, a lapse in coverage — especially in crucial moments — is inexcusable. For two weeks in a row that has been the case for UMass. Miami (Ohio) hit on a deep ball in the fourth quarter of a three-point game that put them up two scores and essentially gave them the win, and Eastern Michigan got behind the secondary on a broken play that cost the Minutemen the game as well.

Brown was upset considering that play came against a UMass coverage scheme it had ran a dozen times that game alone.

“You’re gonna give up big plays, we all know that, but you can’t give them up and not be in the right places,” Brown said. “When you’re in the right places, you’re (still) gonna give up an occasional big play. In a key spot in the game, we’re playing a coverage we at least played 12 times with a ton of success.”

Phommachanh was inactive the past two games since suffering an injury against Auburn. When he is finally healthy, it’s almost a given that he’ll return to the starting role. UMass hasn’t looked the same since its first game against New Mexico State, but as of now, Phommachanh’s status is still up in the air.

“Everything is going smoothly, but again, it’s Monday,” Brown said. “We’ll practice today after a day off [Sunday]. Right now, everything seems to be moving in the right direction.”

The Minutemen (1-3) return home this Saturday for their first of three straight games at McGuirk Alumni Stadium, a 3:30 p.m. kickoff against New Mexico.

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