AMHERST — “I’m really excited,” Darren Thellen said, “to be playing in front of the home crowd.”
Like everyone involved with University of Massachusetts football, the starting free safety can’t wait for Saturday’s kickoff against Indiana, because it’s the home opener of a new era. The Minutemen, in the program’s 133d season, are stepping up to the college game’s top level, the Football Bowl Subdivision.
And to put an exclamation point on that milestone, the home opener is at a new home.
Playing at Gillette Stadium actually adds two layers of excitement for Thellen. He’s no different from the rest of the Minutemen in being thrilled to take the field at the home of the Patriots, but when the fifth-year senior talks about “the home crowd” in Foxborough, he means it not merely in terms of the football schedule. Thellen is from Brockton.
“I live 15 minutes from the stadium,” he said. “It’ll feel like I’m right at home.”
This will not be the first time Thellen has played at Gillette. Although Brockton High did not make it to an MIAA Super Bowl at the stadium until the year after he graduated, the 22-year-old has stepped onto the big stage in each of the past two seasons for Colonial Clash games against New Hampshire. This time, however, the stands won’t be split between road-trippers from Amherst and Durham.
“It’ll be just our fans,” said Thellen. “Indiana fans, a few of them might fly out here, but not too many.”
Thellen is thinking, in fact, that the Hoosiers’ cream-and-crimson cheering section might even be drowned out by his family and friends. He is expecting to see a lot of familiar faces in the crowd.
“A whole section,” he said. “Hopefully a large section. And I’m really excited to play in front of them.”
Charley Molnar isn’t worried about his defensive playmaker losing focus, because Thellen is a four-year starter. But the first-year head coach does have concerns about a UMass team that has up to 19 freshmen (including redshirts) on the two-deep depth chart. Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. kickoff will be preceded by all sorts of pomp and circumstance, from a C-5 Galaxy military plane flyover to a coin toss by alumnus Bill Cosby.
“The problem is, if our guys get distracted by it being the home opener and all of the festivities that surround that, it will be hard for us to play our very best,” said Molnar. “Our job as coaches will be to keep their focus on the task at hand.”
Of course, not long ago, those same coaches were trying to get those same young players to do the opposite: focus on Gillette Stadium. That was during recruiting season.
“It’s a selling point,” Molnar acknowledged. “But once the player is here and he knows he’s going to be playing his home games at Gillette, it’s not a novelty anymore.”
Coming off a 37-0 demolition by Connecticut Aug. 30 in which the Minutemen produced just 59 total yards and three first downs, UMass might view two straight games against Big Ten opposition as daunting. (They travel to Ann Arbor next week to face Michigan.) But this is what UMass signed up for when it opted for big-time football.
No longer does the annual schedule feature just a single FBS speed bump (if that) before veering back to the relatively smooth sailing of the Football Championship Subdivision, the old Division 1-AA. The next visitor to Gillette will be Mid-American Conference power Ohio, which last week upset Penn State.
“This is a journey, and it’s going to start off bumpy,” said Molnar. “That’s the way it’s going to be. Almost every game we play, it’s not going to be a level playing field.
“It doesn’t mean we can’t win football games. It doesn’t mean we can’t win every game from here on out.”
The Minutemen might very well bump their way to victory this weekend. Indiana is a program in disarray. The Hoosiers did get off on the right foot with a 24-17 win over Indiana State last Saturday, but that matches their win total for all of last season, in which their only victory also came against a FCS team, South Carolina State. Indiana has had just one winning season since 1994.
So UMass has an opportunity to make its first home game at Gillette Stadium memorable. It all depends on whether the youngest Minutemen have progressed far enough to get it.
“You can’t correct a lack of experience in nine days,” said Molnar. “But what you can do is continue to work with the young guys and get better.
“The first game, it’s behind them — the nervousness of being under the bright lights for the first time. For some guys, it was literally the first college football game they ever saw. And they were starting in it.”