EAST HARTFORD — He was rattled. He was bloodied.
No, it was not one of the University of Massachusetts players who sat before the media looking beat up in the aftermath of the program’s humbling debut in the Football Bowl Subdivision. It was head coach Charley Molnar, whose teeth appeared blood-stained every time he opened his mouth to rattle off an explanation for the Minutemen’s 37-0 manhandling by Connecticut Thursday night before 35,270 at Rentschler Field.
“Oh, this,” Molnar said as he dabbed his mouth, managing a slight smile. “I must have bit my lip to not say something I wanted to say.”
Boy, the things the coach must have had to hold back from saying about UMass’s not-so-grand entrance. Suffice to say, the game surely did not play out the way Molnar had drawn it up in practice. Never mind that the Minutemen were shut out for the first time since 1995. They couldn’t even move the ball beyond their 38-yard line. Forty-six offensive plays netted a mere 3 yards rushing and 56 passing. On a team that managed just three first downs, the big numbers producer was Jeff Strait, who stepped on the field nine times and put up 378 yards. He’s the punter.
“I know that we’ve gotten better. I know where we’re going. I’m disappointed in tonight,” said Molnar, entering his first season not only as the UMass head coach but as a top man anywhere. He’d spent his previous 28 years on collegiate sidelines as an assistant, the last two as offensive coordinator at Notre Dame.
“I’m shocked we didn’t score. I’m shocked we didn’t score quite a few times.”
Complicating UMass’s move up, this is a young team, with 16 freshmen (including redshirts) on the two-deep depth chart. These Minutemen did not appear ready for prime time.
“No matter how hyped and no matter how pepped and no matter how ready the guys are,” said Molnar, “the first time they get into a game you don’t know what to expect. You’d like to think that what you see in pressure situations in practice will translate into success on the field. It doesn’t always happen that way.”
One of the young players Molnar is relying on is Mike Wegzyn, and the redshirt freshman quarterback struggled from the start. The Minutemen’s opening possession resulted in a three-and-out — and it could have been worse. On second down, Wegzyn’s first collegiate pass was tipped at the line and floated lazily above the middle of the defense. The ball hovered tantalizingly before finally landing on the turf between a couple of diving Huskies.
Wegzyn (9 of 22, 56 yards, 1 interception) eventually did hand UConn points. Shortly before halftime, his quick pass to the sideline was intercepted by cornerback Dwayne Gratz, who took it 37 yards to the end zone. Much of the damage already had been done by then, though, as the pick-6 made it a 20-0 game.
Molnar didn’t place all of the blame on his quarterback, but he didn’t absolve him, either. “Some of it was definitely what UConn did,” said the coach. “But a lot of it was self-inflicted wounds by Mike. He didn’t pull the trigger fast, had guys open, just got stuck on the peg a few times.”
What did Wegzyn take away from the bad night? “You just have to swallow your pride,” he said, “look at what you did wrong, correct it, and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
His coach will second that plan — not just for his quarterback but for his team. “Will it be better next week?” Molnar said, referring to the home opener against Indiana a week from Saturday. “It damn well better be.”
Or else a little cloning experiment might come into play. Molnar brought up that possibility when asked about a stupendous play by safety Darren Thellen, perhaps the only highlight for the Minutemen. It came in the first quarter with UConn ahead by a touchdown and driving for another. Chandler Whitmer (15 of 25, 219 yards) rolled out and, with his receivers covered, opted to throw the ball away. Except that he didn’t throw the football quite far enough away. As the pass sailed out of bounds, Thellen leaped across the sideline and, like a volleyball setter, tipped it to a teammate, linebacker Tom Brandt, who returned the interception 20 yards to the 37.
“Aw, that was luck,” Thellen quietly said afterward.
Molnar begged to differ, calling his fifth-year senior’s effort “beautiful” and turning it into a state of the union speech. “We just need to have more of those kind of plays,” he said. “But we’ve only got one Darren Thellen, unfortunately. I said to one of the coaches during pregame meal, ‘I wish we had 105 of him, because we’d never lose a game.’ ”