Loss to FCS Rhode Island tough to stomach for UMass football

  • UMass running back Ellis Merriweather sits on the sideline during the UMass football team’s 35-22 loss to Rhode Island on Saturday at McGuirk Alumni Stadium. Merriweather ran for 118 yards and a touchdown. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • UMass quarterback Tyler Lytle made his first start for the Minutemen since the season opener, throwing for 227 yards and a score in UMass’ 35-22 loss to Rhode Island at McGuirk Alumni Stadium on Saturday. He also ran for a touchdown. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • UMass coach Walt Bell on the sidelines of the Minutemen’s 35-22 loss against Rhode Island on Saturday at McGuirk Alumni Stadium. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • UMass running back Ellis Merriweather runs for a touchdown in the fourth quarter Saturday at McGuirk Alumni Stadium. He ran the ball 30 times for 118 yards and a touchdown in a 35-22 loss against Rhode Island. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

Staff Writer
Published: 11/6/2021 8:52:27 PM

AMHERST – Rhode Island faced third down and 17 yards to go in the dwindling seconds of the third quarter.

The Rams football team led UMass by 12 but just had a first-down run by quarterback Kasim Hill negated by a holding penalty. With a stop, the Minutemen could make it a one-score game early in the fourth quarter and have some hope to salvage the game against FCS Rhode Island on Saturday at McGuirk Alumni Stadium.

Jaylen Smith snuffed those dreams with a 72-yard touchdown run, weaving through UMass’ defense to put the Rams up three scores and hand the Minutemen their third loss in a row and 23rd defeat in their past 25 games. Rhode Island captured a 35-22 win on Homecoming.

“Too many critical errors in critical moments. That’s my job as a head coach, is to make sure that we don’t do those things, and I did not get the job done,” UMass coach Walt Bell said. “I think that is the most important thing for people to understand. Me, as the head football coach, I’m accountable for how our team plays no matter who we play and where we play them.”

Rhode Island (6-4) hadn’t beaten an FBS school since 2000 when the Rams knocked off UConn. It’s UMass’ third loss to an FCS program since moving up to the FBS level in 2013 (Maine in 2013 and Southern Illinois in 2019). Bell was on the sidelines for the last two.

“They all hurt, this one hurts,” Bell said.

UMass (1-8) started poorly. The Minutemen received the opening kickoff and handed the ball to quarterback Tyler Lytle, who missed the previous seven games after injuring his wrist against Pittsburgh in the season opener. UMass went three and out after two short runs and an incompletion.

The Rhode Island’s Coby Tippett returned the ensuing punt 56 yards to the UMass 8. It only took the Rams three plays to go ahead, when Hill, a transfer quarterback Bell coached at Maryland, ran in for a two-yard score 4:02 in. Hill finished with 32 yards on the ground and two scores and threw for another 169 yards and two scores.

The Minutemen responded with an 11-play, 88-yard drive that Lytle capped with a three-yard touchdown run, his second scoring run of the season. A missed extra point prevented the Minutemen from tying the game with 5:52 left in the first quarter.

Lytle completed 15-of-28 passes for 227 yards and his first career touchdown pass.

“He was rusty. There were some throws I think he wishes he would have back, but I thought he did a nice job managing the line of scrimmage,” Bell said. “We set out to run the ball early not knowing exactly how he would respond to a full day of warm ups and all those throws.”

UMass safety Tanner Davis picked up a sack to force a Rhode Island punt on the Rams next possession. Rhode Island false started, and the Davey Schaum-Bartocci punt set the Minutemen up at the UMass 49. Seven Ellis Merriweather runs later, Carson Cameron hit a 39-yard field goal that put the Minutemen ahead 9-6 with 12:49 to halftime. UMass hadn’t led since taking an early 3-0 lead at Florida State after the Seminoles fumbled the opening kickoff. Neither advantage lasted long.

Hill orchestrated a seven-play, 66-yard drive that he capped with a five-yard pass to receiver Ed Lee, which gave Rhode Island the lead 14-9. UMass forced the Rams into fourth down six plays into the drive, but Davis was called for roughing the passer to resuscitate the possession.

The Minutemen gained one first down their next possession on a nine-yard pass from Lytle to Rico Arnold (six catches, 99 yards), but the drive sputtered after an ineligible man downfield penalty. UMass compromised a solid 37-yard George Georgopolous punt to the Rhode Island 26 with a kick catch interference penalty.

Rhode Island extended the lead with a three-yard touchdown pass from Hill to Joey Kenny after a nine-play, 59-yard drive.

UMass got the ball back with 2:45 to halftime, and Lytle drove the offense to the red zone with the aid of three penalties (roughing the passer, two pass interferences). He hit Josiah Johnson for a three-yard touchdown with 12 seconds to halftime that cut the deficit to 21-16.

Then the Minutemen tried to squib the kickoff to not give Rhode Island an opportunity to score as the half expired with the second half kickoff going to the Rams. UMass kicker CJ Kolodziey slipped on the kick, and the ball bounced perfectly 10 yards before Tristan Armstrong recovered it. It’s the second squib kick the Minutemen have inadvertently recovered after a more violent version of the play late against UConn that bounced off a Huskies up man.

With a chance at another score before the buzzer at the UMass 46, Bell opted to run Merriweather (30 carriers for 118 yards) once and go to halftime down just five.

“We haven’t up until this point been very good in terms of field goals," Bell said. “With 11 seconds left, you don’t have any timeouts because I believe I burned them on the two-minute drive before half. We just thought it was a wise thing to do to get into halftime.”

UMass’ defense forced a three and out on Rhode Island’s first possession of the second half, but the Minutemen couldn’t capitalize on the opportunity to take the lead. Two false start plays hampered the drive, and Lytle was sacked on third and 11 by L.B. Mack III. He finished with 3½ sacks, the second most in Rhode Island history.

The Rams offense responded with a nine-play, 80 yard drive that Hill put away with another two-yard run to go up 28-16.

After another UMass three and out (its third of the game), Smith put his first career touchdown on the board with his 72-yard clincher. He went over 100 yards for the first time in his career (111 total) on the run.

“We’ve got to do a better job coaching, and ultimately that starts with me,” Bell said. “We haven’t had this many penalties in a game all year. Critical errors at critical times, and this is what happens.”

UMass committed nine penalties for 74 yards. Rhode Island had nine for 87.

Lytle and the Minutemen responded with two drives that reached the red zone. Merriweather scored on a one-yard plunge with 8:50 remaining to cut it back to two scores. Bell had to call a timeout when the field goal unit took the field for the extra point. UMass was down 13. A two-point conversion would put a field goal back in play with another two-point conversion, while the extra point would necessitate two touchdowns. Lytle overthrew tight end Jaret Pallotta with a pass that bounced off the crossbar.

Rhode Island burned 6:20 of clock, gaining 37 yards on 10 plays – all rushes.

Lytle drew the Rams offsides then hit Arnold for consecutive gains of 23 and 25 yards to the Rhode Island 14. Then he underthrew Onuma Dieke in the end zone, and Jordan Jones put a bow on the game with an interception.

“In coaching, in general, you’re always evaluating, you’re always evaluating yourself, you’re always evaluating the roster.  You’re evaluating everyone and everything and how you do things and the systems that are in place," Bell said, hoarse and coughing with emotions catching in his throat. “I feel like we’ve got good players, and I feel like we have wonderful kids. I feel like we have a good staff. And I feel like we have a bunch of guys that are really invested in helping our players be as good as they can be. When you feel that way as a coach, it’s hard when things don’t go your way.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.
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