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WALFISH: UMass football searching for answers to larger questions

  • Josh Walfish on July 25, 2018 at the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

  • 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 Writer
Published: 10/6/2019 8:03:10 PM


Those are two words that were circulating in the minds of many UMass fans and alums alike after Saturday’s debacle against Florida International. Perhaps the comforting part is that those are the words swirling in the brains of many fan bases around the country.

This same column is being written in so many newspapers across the country from the Sun Sentinel’s Dave Hyde about the University of Miami to Mike Anthony in the Hartford Courant about UConn. If misery loves company, UMass and its fan base certainly has plenty of it at the pity party.

Of course, UMass’ situation is far different than the one Miami is facing – at least the Hurricanes battled back to tie the game after four turnovers on the first four drives of the game. The mess in Amherst is even slightly different than the one down I-91 in Hartford, mostly because Randy Edsall has shown zero improvement from year one to year two in terms of results. What differentiates this UMass team is the fact that there is no easy answer to the question posed above.

Last week’s win over Akron was supposed to give UMass confidence and set the tone for an improved second half of the season. Instead the Minutemen were Wile E Coyote realizing they ran off the cliff and letting gravity take effect and pummel them into the ground. There were literally zero positives UMass could take from that game and there was no lesson to be learned that hasn’t been taught countless times in the first four weeks.

Is this rock bottom for UMass this season? Are the Minutemen going to find a shovel and dig themselves further into the abyss? Where does this team go after the worst performance in the program’s FBS era?

The lack of improvement from week-to-week is troubling, but not surprising given the youth playing on a thin roster. The more concerning aspect is the lack of progression within Saturday’s game, especially when it came to the offense.

Statistically, it wasn’t UMass’ worst offensive game of the FBS, but it was without a doubt the worst in the eight long years the Minutemen have been playing at the highest levels of Division I football. The Minutemen picked up just five first downs and gained a paltry 115 yards, a stat line comparable to the first year under Charley Molnar. UMass was shut out in five games in 24 games with Molnar as coach, but at least there was an argument that the program was still taking its lumps as an FBS program.

Granted, Bell didn’t inherit an experienced quarterback who could command the huddle or a bell cow running back capable of carrying a team. But there is certainly more talent on the roster than what the Minutemen have shown on offense so far through six weeks. It’s been an utter failure for everyone involved on that side of the ball from the coaching staff to the players.

At this point, whatever happens during the week at practice is irrelevant. For weeks, coaches and players alike have mentioned that practices have gone well and that the offense has started to click. But it’s easy to look good when the lights aren’t on and the defense isn’t actively trying to knock off your head. Whatever success the Minutemen think they’re having at practice isn’t translating onto the field.

The platitudes from Bell about building a culture and sticking to the plan are wearing thin on the fan base, no matter how true they may actually be. No one was expecting greatness from the Minutemen this season and the ceiling was set at matching last year’s four wins. But the performances in four of the first six games have used up the good will Bell built in his first nine months on the job when he was winning off the field every step of the way.

The on-field wins probably won’t come this year with the toughest part of the schedule coming up. UMass will be heavy underdogs in five of their final six games – Pillow Fight of the Year II against UConn is the exception – and it is hard to see the Minutemen pulling off an upset even with Northwestern finding a way to be worse on offense than UMass. So the final six games aren’t going to be judged on the scoreboard, it’ll be evaluated by the eyes of the fans paying money to watch this team.

Are the Minutemen going to fight for 60 minutes? Are they going to learn from their mistakes and show some type of improvement? Can they inspire hope in a fan base that seems ready to quit on them?

When UMass fans ask “now what,” it isn’t layered with a bevy of practical football questions that with simple answers. Instead, those two words are fraught with the existential questions that won’t be answered for a year or two in Amherst and will end up dictating the future of UMass football.

It’s up to the Minutemen to find the answers to those questions.

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