Practice success not translating to games for UMass

  • Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium at UMass. STAFF PHOTO.KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 10/8/2019 9:14:28 PM

AMHERST — Momentum is a fickle beast when it comes to young football teams coming off their first win.

The progress UMass made in its victory over Akron two weeks ago was quickly forgotten in a 44-0 shellacking at Florida International on Saturday. It was an overall minor setback in the grand vision and process coach Walt Bell has designed to rebuild the Minutemen, but he said the shutout still felt like a letdown after how well UMass handled the six days that preceded it.

“The most disappointing thing is we had a great week of practice, we had a great week of preparation,” Bell said. “That was probably our best Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday since we’ve been here in terms of execution, in terms of attitude, in terms of tempo, in terms of outside the white lines. ... And then for us to have that performance, it’s more disappointing than anything else.”

Every week for the past few weeks, Bell and his players have said that they’ve had their best set of practices all season. There was optimism that a team that has tied mighty Alabama with seven true freshmen starters so far this season was potentially going to translate those practices onto the field on Saturday. Yet that wasn’t the case against the Panthers, with their best week of practice being followed by their worst performance of the season.

There is no quick fix for replicating the success of practice into games, Bell said, especially with how thin the roster has been recently. UMass traveled with just 50 scholarship players and 60 total to FIU, many of whom are freshmen and sophomores being asked to play large roles. Bell said there are certain physical aspects of the game the coaches can’t replicate in practice and that the physical immaturity of some of the players might be leading to some of the woes every Saturday.

“A piece of it is experience and a piece of it is roster building through recruiting,” Bell said. “As we’re doing everything we can to make sure we build this thing for the long term, this is what happens when you play a bunch of young guys. Right now, we’ve got more freshman starters than any team in the country and a few of those are walk-on guys, so we’re playing a lot of young guys. Anytime you play young people, it’s not just the mental piece of the game, there’s a lot of physical development left there to do.”

LEAKING AIR — It would be unwise to pinpoint one specific reason UMass’ offense had its worst performance in seven years against FIU. But it certainly didn’t help that the Minutemen were unable to move the ball vertically with their passing game.

Michael Curtis was left on an island much of the game in search of open receivers, an issue that didn’t resolve itself when Randall West took over for the final three drives. The duo combined to complete just 7 of 24 attempts with just two of those completions going for more than 10 yards.

FIU was playing the man coverage UMass expected, but the receivers didn’t win enough battles to give Curtis targets to aim at. He had two passes nearly intercepted and threw two picks – one of which bounced off his intended receiver’s hands. Bell said he didn’t want to criticize his players directly, but admitted there was a lot for UMass to improve upon this week.

“We’ve got to do a great job at helping find ways for our kids to get open,” Bell said. “But again, that’s part of roster building. Especially on first and second down, they crawled down on top of us, played a ton of man and tried to take the run away from us, and we weren’t able to (get it done). Whether it be pass protection or pitching and catching or whether it be winning one-on-one, it’s a big laundry list of issues of why we weren’t effective throwing the ball.”

THE LIST GROWS — The Minutemen had two more freshmen make their debuts on Saturday.

Xavier Graham, who made the switch from the offensive to defensive line two weeks ago, saw some snaps in the rotation. Taj Jones, who is listed on the roster as an athlete, had been practicing as a wide receiver since arriving in Amherst. However, he transitioned to defensive back last week with only three healthy cornerbacks, and made his debut on both defense and special teams.

Both of those players are part of Bell’s crafty strategy to utilize the four-game redshirt rule to the best of his abilities and allow as many young players to see action without losing the year of eligibility. Only four freshmen – Jermaine “OC” Johnson Jr., Josh Wallace, Johnathon Weir and Billy Wooden – have played in more than four games so far while Wilson Frederic and Grant Laws have both appeared in the maximum four games. Bell said the ever-shifting depth issues on the team will play a large part in determining who will be able to redshirt this season.

“It’s just a balance, we would love to be able to (redshirt everyone), but we’re in a situation right now where we’re so thin that to be able to field a roster, we’ve had to make some concessions there,” Bell said. “We want to get old and get experienced as soon as possible and do so simultaneously.”

INJURY REPORT — The injury situation is still a bit bleak looking ahead to this weekend at Louisiana Tech.

Bell said there is an outside chance several defensive players might be able to return Saturday, but most of those issues are day-to-day problems from which Bell said he won’t rush them back. The only injured player who might see the field on Saturday is redshirt sophomore quarterback Andrew Brito, who has progressed in the concussion protocol and is expected to practice this week.

The good news for the Minutemen is that they are off after Saturday’s game with the Bulldogs, giving them more time to heal up and gain back some much-needed depth.

“If we can get three or four more bodies back healthy, that would be really big for us,” Bell said.

Josh Walfish can be reached at jwalfish@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @JoshWalfishDHG. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.



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