UMass football: Minutemen need to avoid slow starts after dropping fourth straight game

  • Umass running back Kay'Ron Lynch-Adams (15) rushes against New Mexico in the second quarter Saturday at McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Umass wide receiver Anthony Simpson (8) eyes the New Mexico sideline before a play in the second quarter Saturday at McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Staff Writer
Published: 9/25/2023 5:58:10 PM
Modified: 9/25/2023 5:57:21 PM

AMHERST — The UMass football team faced more of the same struggles on Saturday evening at McGuirk Alumni Stadium, as the Minutemen found themselves in an early 14-0 hole against New Mexico. Slow starts have plagued them throughout their first five games. UMass (1-4) has trailed by double digits in the first half in each of its last four games — all losses — including its eventual 34-31 overtime loss to the Lobos.

The Minutemen clawed their way back into the game in the second half behind a defensive shutout and timely offense. Head coach Don Brown said Monday during his weekly media availability that he was proud of the way his group responded and gave themselves a chance at the end.

“Offensively, I thought we had a pretty good night, just kind of going through the night,” Brown said. “Defensively, first half, we were not very good. And then shut them out in the second half. So, good response from them. Because if they don’t do that, we got no shot.”

Perhaps the UMass defense felt a bit embarrassed surrendering four straight touchdown drives to the New Mexico offense, because the second-half response was apparent. Defensive lineman Billy Wooden, one of the vocal leaders on the defense, said the defense takes pride in coming out and winning the third quarter — and knew they had to be better if the Minutemen wanted to come back.

“It’s a goal of ours,” Wooden said on Monday. “We take pride in having third quarter shutouts, especially this past game. We went to the locker room, made some adjustments, and got the guys fired up. We just knew that’s what we had to do to even give ourselves a chance to win the game.”

Wooden’s sizable contributions to the defense come as no surprise this season. The senior has worked his tail off to recover from an ACL injury suffered two years ago and has gotten into terrific shape. He came up huge in the New Mexico State win with a late fumble recovery, and stripped Miami (Ohio)’s quarterback Brett Gabbert inside the five-yard line in the fourth quarter to help UMass get within three points. His big game on Saturday (seven tackles, three tackles for loss, one sack) was just another display of his dominance.

“It’s been a good ride for me this season,” Wooden said. “It’s my last ride, so I just want to leave it all out on the field. It’s really just giving props to all my coaches, they’ve helped me get to this position. And mainly my body just feeling better compared to last year and the previous year. Just hard work and dedication, so this season has meant a lot to me.”

Another issue alongside the slow starts has been penalties. The same discipline a Don Brown-led team is accustomed to showcasing has yet to be seen five games into 2023. UMass is averaging 8.4 penalties and 76 yards per contest. Brown said he recognizes the issue, but also knows it isn’t just one unit committing the fouls. Each phase of the game needs to be cleaned up.

“I think it’s all of it, because it’s across the board,” Brown said. “It’s offensively, it’s defensively, it’s in the kicking game, it’s across the board. We’ve just got to do a better job with our discipline.”

The Minutemen were in New Mexico territory on eight of their nine possessions, not including the two-play, 35-second drive to run out the first half clock. To only find the end zone three times (one of them being a fortunate 65-yard heave from Ahmad Haston to Anthony Simpson) on those eight drives was a bit disappointing for Brown. If UMass wants to get over the hump of losing these close games, consistently coming away with six points is necessary.

“That’s the big piece. One, we gotta get in the red zone. Two, when we get in the red zone, we gotta score touchdowns,” Brown said. “Anybody that’s asked that, that’s what they’re going to say to you. And it certainly holds true for us.”

Wooden is well aware that UMass needs to do a better job of getting out of the gate quicker. And with an offense that has already seen four quarterbacks take meaningful snaps in just five games, he understands that unit might start slow — which requires the defense to pick up some of the slack. If the Minutemen fall behind and take punches early, a stronger response is needed from everybody.

“Just start faster, get those kinks out the way early,” Wooden said. “Teams are going to make plays sometimes, it’s how you respond is kind of everything. Once we have trials and tribulations, it’s just get back on our feet and make plays. That’s all it really is… being able to adapt.”

Haston replaced Carlos Davis (abdominal injury) in the fourth quarter and made the most of the snaps he saw. His highlight came late in the game with the Minutemen desperately needing a score. Haston launched a ball deep into the night sky above McGuirk, and when it finally came down, Simpson plucked it away from two awaiting Lobos defenders and scampered — with the help of George Johnson III who delivered a huge block — into the end zone.

Wooden and the defense — praying to get another shot — were in shock on the sideline.

“It was crazy, I don’t even know how to explain it to be honest,” Wooden said. “It was kinda like, ‘Oh, that really just happened.’ Some of the d-linemen, we all huddled up hoping we get the two-point conversion to just give ourselves an opportunity. So we all were excited.”

Brown was pleased with what Haston showed in his limited time on the turf on Saturday. The true freshman threw for 102 yards on 5-for-5 passing and the touchdown to Simpson. If starting quarter Taisun Phommachanh, who hasn’t played since Sept. 2 against Auburn due to injury, and Davis are unable to suit up against Arkansas State next weekend, Haston figures to be the guy Brown and the coaching staff will roll with.

“Yeah, I feel really good, really comfortable with him at the helm,” Brown said of Haston. “I thought he played really well. I thought he competed. And I thought he ran the show really well as well. So I didn’t see a lot of weaknesses there.”

Brown mentioned there are no injury updates on both quarterbacks, Phommachanh or Davis, though he said Phommachanh continues to show progress during his rehab.

UMass hosts Arkansas State at 3:30 p.m. on ESPN-Plus for its second of three straight contests at home.


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