UMass football notebook: Bye week just what banged up Minutemen needed

  • UMass head coach Walt Bell and the Minutemen return to action this weekend against Florida State after a bye week following the program’s victory over UConn. FOR THE GAZETTE/J. ANTHONY ROBERTS

  • UMass’ Hugo Klages, Jason Weir, Uchenna Ezewike and Viczaril Aldbwede tackle Eastern Michigan’s Bryson Moss earlier this season. FOR THE GAZETTE/J. ANTHONY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 10/19/2021 3:49:07 PM

Last week’s bye arrived at an opportune time for the UMass football team.

The Minutemen played six consecutive games to open the season, losing the first five before breaking through against UConn.

The coaching staff gave the team Oct. 10 and 11 off before practicing that Tuesday and Wednesday like normal. They had a light lift Thursday and a team run Friday. The Minutemen were off Saturday and began early preparation for Florida State, who UMass next faces at noon Saturday in Doak Campbell Stadium, on Sunday.

“It was a good breather. We needed it,” UMass coach Walt Bell said. “We had some guys, guys that were even playing but playing beat up a little bit. It was good for those guys to get a load off their bodies.”

Maybe no one more than running back Ellis Merriweather, who carried the ball 38 times against the Huskies, the fifth-highest workload in program history.

“I think it was important. We’ve been working since late May grinding every single day, every single week. It was good for our bodies,” he said. “We were riding a wave, and we’ve got to continue that, regardless of the break.”

The Minutemen returned to practice with an extra spring in their step and some more juice after snapping a 16-game losing streak that lasted nearly two calendar years.

“The bangs, the bruises, the bumps don’t hurt as much. Winning helps a lot of ailments. Even some of the greatest sports psychologists in the world will tell you there’s no such thing as great team chemistry. The winning creates the chemistry,” Bell said. “Our kids needed that bye week. They need the mental and physical breather. Now it’s time to ramp back up and get ready for the second half of the season.”

UMass doesn’t have any more off weeks for the rest of the season. The Minutemen travel to Florida State on Saturday then Liberty on Oct. 30. Then they return home for Rhode Island and Maine in back to back weeks to end their home schedule, which was front loaded with four of the first six games at McGuirk Alumni Stadium. UMass will visit Army on Nov. 20  and close the regular season the following week at New Mexico State.

INJURY REPORT – The week off allowed UMass, which has dealt with injuries in nearly every position group, to rest and recover.

Offensive lineman Max Longman, who played against UConn, is “kind of questionable,” Bell said.

“He made it through the UConn game, but he’s a little beat up right now,” Bell said.

Defensive linemen Devin Baldwin and Billy Wooden are “beat up but will be OK,” according to Bell.

Quarterback Tyler Lytle remains out but might not be done for the season. The bone itself in his right hand is healed, Bell said, but he also emphasized there’s a difference between being healthy enough to throw a football and healthy enough to play the quarterback position.

“I’m not a doctor. My dad was but I’m not nearly smart enough to be one myself. It’s up to the medical staff,” Bell said. “He is progressing. He’s doing a little more each day.”

TOP-FLIGHT SIGNAL CALLERS – UMass knows what the upper echelon of college football quarterbacks looks like because the Minutemen have had to face a lot of them.

Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett ranks fourth in the nation with 21 touchdown passes and 11th with 1,934 yards. Boston College’s Phil Jurkovec was being mentioned as a high-end professional prospect before he injured his hand against UMass. Coastal Carolina’s Grayson McCall leads the nation in passer rating (234.3) and completion percentage (73.9).

Things don’t get easier over the next few weeks. Florida State quarterback Jordan Travis has come alive the past two games leading the Seminoles to wins over Syracuse and North Carolina. He ran for more than 100 yards in each game and has accounted for seven total touchdowns in that stretch.

Then UMass will face Liberty’s Malik Willis, regularly mentioned as one of the best available quarterback prospects in the 2022 NFL Draft.

“We’ve had a hell of a run of quarterbacks here,” Bell said. “There’s a big difference between how (Florida State) coach (Mike) Norvell and coach (Florida State offensive coordinator Kenny) Dillingham run their offense and how (Liberty coach Hugh) Freeze runs his. But from a speed of the game standpoint there’s probably not a better week to week comparison between Jordan Travis and Malik Willis from an athleticism standpoint. Even though they’re different quarterbacks, they’re both extremely athletic and great players.”

WON’T GO TO HIS HEAD – Just because Merriweather had a career day against UConn doesn't mean the running back is basking in praise or riding the bluster of one good performance.

“I’m continuing to work the same way that I do. My coaches aren’t treating me special because I had a good game. It’s right back to business,” Merriweather said. “I really forgot about it, honestly. It’s on to the next one. I try to go harder every day. It’s a constant motion.”

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

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