UMass routed by Southern Illinois in Walt Bell’s home debut

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  • University of Massachusetts freshman wide receiver Jermaine "OC' Johnson Jr. juggles a pass that fell incomplete in front of Southern Illinois safey Mike Elbert in the first quarter of the Minutemen's 45-20 loss to the Salukis at McGuirk Alumni Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • University of Massachusetts redshirt sophomore wide receiver Zak Simon (11) is brought down by Southern Illinois cornerback Madre Harper after a reception for a first down in the second quarter of the Minutemen's 45-20 loss to the Salukis at McGuirk Alumni Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019. Southern Illinois safety Jeremy Chin (2) backs up the play. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • University of Massachusetts redshirt sophomore wide receiver Zak Simon makes a reception in front of Southern Illinois safety Joe Patterson, right, on the Minutemen's second scoring drive of the first half on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, at McGuirk Stadium. Kevin Brown's subsequent two-yard run put UMass ahead, 12-10, but the Minutemen fell, 45-20, to the Salukis. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • University of Massachusetts freshman running back Kevin Brown breaks free of Southern Illinois linebacker Crody Crider to reach the Salukis' two-yard line in the second quarter of the Minutemen's 45-20 loss at McGuirk Alumni Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019. Brown scored on the next play. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • This PAT by University of Massachusetts senior kicker Cooper Garcia was no good after the Minutemen scored first against Southern Illinois in a 45-20 loss to the Salukis at McGuirk Alumni Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • University of Massachusetts senior wide receiver Sadiq Palmer, center, is brought down by Southern Illinois defenders Qua Brown, left, and Tre Strong in the first quarter of the Minutemen's 45-20 loss to the Salukis at McGuirk Alumni Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • University of Massachusetts head coach Walt Bell walks the sideline in the first half of the Minutemen's 45-20 loss to Southern Illinois at McGuirk Alumni Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • University of Massachusetts sophomore lineman Dennis Osagiede sacks Southern Illinois quarterback Stone Labanowitz in the first quarter of the Minutemen's 45-20 loss to the Salukis at McGuirk Alumni Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • University of Massachusetts head coach Walt Bell talks to players from the sideline in the first half of the Minutemen's 45-20 loss to Southern Illinois at McGuirk Alumni Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • University of Massachusetts redshirt senior quarterback Randall West, center, sets up in a pocket held in part by redshirt sophomore lineman Brian Abosi, left, in the second quarter of the Minutemen's 45-20 loss to Southern Illinois at McGuirk Alumni Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • University of Massachusetts redshirt senior quarterback Randall West (13) hands off to junior wide receiver Cam Roberson in the first quarter of the Minutemen's 45-20 loss to Southern Illinois at McGuirk Alumni Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The University of Massachusetts Department of Athletics debuted a fan hospitality plaza and video board at the south endzone of McGuirk Alumni Stadium for the home-opener against Southern Illinois on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 9/7/2019 9:18:26 PM

AMHERST — There was no sugarcoating the mood in the UMass locker room after Saturday’s game against Southern Illinois.

First-year coach Walt Bell called the 48-20 loss, “One of the most miserable times that I’ve ever had in my entire life standing outside a patch of white lines.” The frustration on the players was evident even as they calmly answered questions about what just happened over the previous three hours at McGuirk Alumni Stadium. The fans streamed out with the same blank expression that mixed disbelief with shock.

UMass had every chance to win its first game of the season, but it also did everything in its power to lose, too. If there was a way for the Minutemen to stop themselves, they found the capacity to accomplish it. The Salukis did plenty to win the game in convincing fashion, but UMass could also feel justified in saying it beat itself.

“Offensively, we found every way possible to shoot ourselves in the foot as we possibly can,” Bell said. “We had a wide open guy and we have a drop. We have another wide open guy and we have a miss. We’re close to breaking one and we have an issue. We’re getting some momentum back and we have a penalty. Defense does an unbelievable job, forces a turnover … and on second-and-1 when we’re running the ball pretty well, we have a young man have a really poor decision.”

That really poor decision turned out to be the breaking point for the Minutemen (0-2) in game that featured plenty of potential plot twists. Freshman wide receiver Jermaine “OC” Johnson was flagged for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty moments after Bilal Ally had finished a tough 6-yard run to the Southern Illinois 5-yard line early in the third quarter with UMass trailing 17-13. It would have given the Minutemen a first down and three chances to gain just 15 feet of grass, but instead they were backed up to the 20 and the series ended with a Randall West interception.

The whole sequence was preceded by the exact script any coach would write for his team coming out of halftime. UMass kicked off and some good coverage and a holding penalty pinned Southern Illinois (1-1) at its own 10-yard line. Two plays later, Cole McCubrey forced a fumble and Billy Wooden fell on it to give the Minutemen a prime chance to reclaim the lead against their FCS foe. Instead, the penalty, interception and a Southern Illinois touchdown put UMass down 24-13.

“We just have to eliminate the critical errors when it comes down to penalties, especially in critical situations,” Ally said. “The penalties are what hurt us (Saturday) and we just have to fix those little details when it comes down to it and get back to it in practice.”

The self-inflicted wounds were nuisances at best to begin the game as UMass was able to maintain some control over the game. The failed fourth-down conversion on the game’s opening drive was rendered moot by a stifling defense that forced a quick three-and-out from the shadow of the Southern Illinois end zone. The missed extra point after West kept it himself on a designed pass play for a touchdown was unimportant once UMass stopped the Salukis on fourth down on the next drive.

Yet some mistakes were just too big for UMass to overcome. After forcing the turnover on downs with 1:47 left in the first quarter, the Minutemen kept going backwards on their next drive. They were flagged for three false starts in a four-snap span leading to a third-and-17 at their own 20. It was a problem that lasted the entire game as seven of UMass’ 10 penalties came for moving too early on offense.

“Early in the football game when we had a little bit of life,” Bell said. “Really simple plan, trying to do everything we can to make sure we eliminate as many mistakes as possible, we had six or seven penalties on the offensive live, which is probably more than we had in fall camp and the first game together. I could probably count on two hands, we’ve probably had less than 10 false starts in fall camp and we probably broke that record (Saturday).”

Despite all the issues, UMass looked to be going into halftime with the lead after Kevin Brown scored his first career touchdown with 1:26 left in the second quarter. It capped off a six-play, 65-yard drive that epitomized what Bell wants his offense to look like. The Minutemen were able to run the ball efficiently and picked up long passes to Samuel Emilus (23 yards) and Zak Simon (38) to flip the field from their own 36 to the Salukis’ 3.

However, the defense couldn’t hold onto the lead for those final 86 seconds of the half. Southern Illinois started to pick on the UMass linebackers in coverage and forced them to defend speedy running back D.J. Davis and tight end Nigel Kilby. Five of the seven plays the Salukis ran on that possession were throws to one of those two players, most notably the 32-yard touchdown to Davis, who simply sprinted past Jarvis Miller as the UMass linebacker ran into traffic trying to catch the running back on his route.

“That was huge, maybe not as much as hurting us as it was big for them,” Bell said. “We kind of ran the football at a high level there, went and punched one in, had an explosive play on a game plan shot to get us down there and kind of took the center of the ring again. To give that right back to them right there at the end before half, that hurt.”

Like Rutgers last week, Southern Illinois put a lot of pressure on UMass to defend tight ends and running backs in coverage. Almost all of the Salukis’ receptions came from one of those two positions and the Minutemen rarely marked those players with defensive backs. Davis had a team-high five catches out of the backfield while Kilby made four grabs. And both of them paled in comparison to the damage Javon Williams Jr. did to the Minutemen.

The running back had a 64-yard touchdown run immediately after West’s interception that extended the Southern Illinois lead to multiple scores for good. But he also got the Salukis on the board with an 85-yard screen pass touchdown in which he wasn’t touched as he raced up the left sideline.

Miller said the Salukis didn’t run any concepts with their tight ends or running backs that the Minutemen didn’t see on film or practice dozens of time during the week. It simply was a lack of execution that gave Southern Illinois the confidence to continue calling those plays.

“That’s on us, our coaches do a good job at putting us in those situations at practice,” Miller said. “It’s not something we haven’t seen before, it’s just something we have to go out and execute a bit better. It’s not the first time we’ve seen that before, we just have to keep remembering to execute and do the little things.”




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