UMass football: Minutemen turn attention to nationally-televised season opener Saturday against New Mexico State

  • 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: 8/21/2023 5:05:43 PM
Modified: 8/21/2023 5:05:31 PM

AMHERST — The UMass and New Mexico State football teams met in the final game of the season in 2021, a forgettable contest in which both squads entered with identical 1-10 records and were crawling to the finish line.

When the Minutemen and the Aggies meet on Saturday to kick off Week Zero of the college football season on ESPN, the country will get a look at how far each program has come in those two years.

Both schools fired their coaches after the 2021 season, UMass bringing in Don Brown and New Mexico State hiring Jerry Kill, and both experienced different results in their subsequent season. Brown and the Minutemen struggled and finished with a 1-11 record while the Aggies went 6-6 — including a 23-13 win over UMass — to go bowling, where it defeated Bowling Green in the Quick Lane Bowl.

The Minutemen are hoping for a similar turnaround this year, as they hope to get things started on the right foot when they kickoff in Las Cruces, N.M. at 7 p.m. on Saturday.

“We’re excited about playing,” Brown said. “They’re a good football team. We’re excited to get down there and stop hitting the same colored jerseys and play the game the way it’s supposed to be played.

“You feel it now,” Brown added. “If you don’t feel it, you probably don’t have a pulse. We’re excited. Our guys have shifted gears and it feels good to be in game plan mode and talking about concepts and so forth to institute in the game Saturday.”

Part of the optimism coming out of the UMass program stems from the hope of improved play under center this fall.

The Minutemen had four different quarterbacks appear in action last season and had little success, finishing last in points scored across Div. 1 with an average of just 12.5 points-per-game. While UMass had success on the ground with now-New Orleans Saints running back Ellis Merriweather — gaining 148.8 yards-per-game on the ground, ranking 68th in D-1 — its passing attack finished 126th out of 131 D1 teams in passing yards-per-game (116.9). 

Enter Taisun Phommachanh. 

The former four-star recruit out of Connecticut started his collegiate career at Clemson, where he appeared in 13 games over three seasons but didn’t make a start. He transferred to ACC foe Georgia Tech last year, and after throwing just five passes and rushing it 15 times with the Yellow Jackets, has made his way to Amherst. 

Brown named Phommachanh the starting quarterback on Monday, beating out incumbent Brady Olson and Western Carolina transfer Carlos Davis for the starting job. The Minutemen hope they can tap into the talent that made him a prized recruit. 

“We’re going with Taisun,” Don Brown said. “It’s not a scenario where one guy didn’t win the job and another guy did. It’s really that his play was exemplary. I’m happy and comfortable with the other guys as well. He can run, he can throw it and we just made the decision that he’s going to get us off on the right foot.” 

Phommachanh and the UMass offense should get a good test right out of the gate. 

It was defense that carried the Aggies to their bowl appearance a season ago, as they had the 16th-best pass defense in the country while allowing 23.9 PPG and just 336.3 yards-per-game as a unit. 

New Mexico State lost a good chunk of that defense this offseason, losing its top three tacklers from a year ago and the majority of that secondary. The personnel the Aggies deploy on defense will look much different than the unit that held the Minutemen to 13 points a season ago. 

“That’s what we’ll find out,” Brown said. “The unknown is a beautiful thing. They were hit with graduation and some things like that on the defensive side in particular. They’re fairly intact offensively.”

The offense is a different story for New Mexico State. 

It was the game against UMass which kicked off a stellar finish to the season for Aggie quarterback Diego Pavis, who threw for 194 yards and two touchdowns while adding 56 yards on the ground in the win over the Minutemen. 

Pavis took the reigns from Gavin Frekes, who he was splitting time with to open the year, after the UMass win and closed things out with a dominant performance against Liberty where he threw for 214 yards and three touchdowns and tacked on 125 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. Pavis went on to win MVP in the Quick Lane Bowl. 

Pavis and Frekes are both back, while New Mexico State added its own former four-star QB in the portal — Eli Stower from Texas A&M — though Brown said he expects to see Pavis under center when the Aggies take the field for their opening possession on Saturday. 

UMass did do some good things defensively against the Aggies last year, like holding them to 0-for-12 on third down, but the club will be facing a New Mexico State offense that returns not just Pavis but two running backs (Jamoni Jones and Star Thomas) who combined for 903 yards a year ago, in addition to its top receiver in Kordell David and four of its starting linemen. 

“[Pavis] kind of got a chance to play against us, primarily in the second quarter and going into the second half,” Brown said. “He did some good things. We had three or four explosive plays that determined the game. We think there’s a chance [they could play multiple quarterbacks]. In some respects there’s some similarity. My impression is that [Pavis] will be the guy.” 

With Kill at the helm, Brown said he knows his squad will be tested in their opener, a game in which the Minutemen hope to build some early season momentum to gain confidence going into a critical season. 

“Jerry Kill does a great job,” Brown said. “He’s a good ball coach and a better person. He does a good job of coaching young people. We’re going to face a well coached team.

“That was a disappointing one last year,” Brown added. “We did have some good things in the game. That was last year and that is this year. They went on to play in a bowl game and win a bowl game. We’re hoping we can follow that same format and formula.”


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