AMHERST — The game that remains the freshest in Mike Wegzyn’s mind is the one the University of Massachusetts quarterback would most like to discard.
Last Saturday against Bowling Green at Gillette Stadium, Wegzyn completed only 9 of 25 passes. The redshirt freshman floated a game-changing third-quarter interception that Dwayne Woods returned 48 yards for a touchdown. Following the extra point, the Falcons swiped a 21-0 lead en route to a 24-0 win.
The pick was the last pass Wegzyn threw. A.J. Doyle assumed the helm for the rest of the game.
“I felt comfortable coming into the game,” Wegzyn said after Wednesday’s practice at McGuirk Stadium. “I missed a couple things here and there throughout the game. Getting into a rhythm was really a problem. I try not to look back at that too much. Obviously that’s not at all what I was planning on having happen coming into the game. That’s not what I wanted or expected. That’s just something you have to learn from.”
Wegzyn and his winless UMass teammates (0-7, 0-4 in the Mid-American Conference) face one of their stiffer challenges yet: a trip to SEC country.
On Saturday, they will square off against Vanderbilt (3-4, 2-3) in Nashville. The Commodores have game-breakers on offense (wide receiver Chris Boyd, 19.3 yards per catch) and defense (linebacker Chase Garnham, 47 tackles). It will be a difficult proving ground for Wegzyn to refute the belief that you’re only as good as your last game.
“I know the areas where we’re dead even with them,” UMass coach Charley Molnar said of competing against SEC programs. “I know areas where we’re close, and some areas where we’re really behind. Some of that behind stuff, we just have to address with recruiting. Player development can only take you so far. Sometimes you just have to have greater talent.”
Wegzyn is at a critical segment. Given his age, the 20-year-old Wegzyn projects to improve as his career progresses. However, Wegzyn and the Minutemen have lost 10 straight games dating to last season. Against Bowling Green, Wegzyn threw two interceptions. They will be facing a Vanderbilt team coming off a 17-13 win over Auburn.
More adversity could harm, more than help, a young quarterback. Molnar, however, believes Wegzyn’s mental approach will keep his game from suffering long-term consequences.
“He’s so resilient. He’s so even-keeled from that standpoint,” Molnar said. “He’s always looking to improve his performance. He takes blame where appropriate. He’s very, very optimistic. He’s optimistic about the game and his own improvement.”
Against Vanderbilt, Wegzyn will have to trust his linemen. Last Saturday, Wegzyn left the pocket too early at times when protection was stout. Wegzyn will also need to make better reads.
The last two games, however, Wegzyn and the Minutemen didn’t have all their bullets. On Oct. 6, Western Michigan throttled UMass, 52-14. Wide receiver Alan Williams and offensive lineman Nick Speller were suspended because of academic reasons. Tight end Rob Blanchflower was unavailable because of a leg injury. Last Saturday against Bowling Green, all three were missing again.
“I was watching that game in the stands with my family and a bunch of my teammates, and it was tough watching,” Blanchflower said of the Bowling Green loss. “The defense was playing so hard. The offense too. Just that the offense wasn’t connecting like we were used to in the past. Obviously it wasn’t just due to the fact that I wasn’t there. There was more than that. But I like to think that if I was out there, I could have helped out.”
Against Vanderbilt, both Williams and Blanchflower are expected to return.
On Sept. 29, the last game in which Williams and Blanchflower dressed, the Minutemen dropped a 37-34 decision to Ohio at Gillette Stadium. Wegzyn connected with Williams seven times for 127 yards and three touchdowns. Blanchflower caught five passes for 80 yards. Wegzyn went 27 of 51 for 373 yards and four touchdowns. Wegzyn didn’t throw a single interception.
“Both guys add another element to our offense that we haven’t had for a couple of weeks,” Molnar said. “We needed them both. It’s nice. It was nice to have a real tight end, because our offense is built around a tight end. We didn’t set out to develop the offense without a tight end. Having Blanch really helps us.”
Vanderbilt won’t be the only challenge. The Minutemen have two more road games, against Northern Illinois and Akron, before concluding 2012 with home matches against Buffalo and Central Michigan.
UMass is looking for its first win. At the same time, Wegzyn’s seeking consistency. The two will need to go hand-in-hand.
“You don’t want to dwell on the things you did wrong,” Wegzyn said. “You just want to correct those and put them in the past. Move on to what we’re going to do, what the game plan is for this week.”