AMHERST — The excitement that senior Quinton Sales once felt about competing in the Football Bowl Subdivision has downgraded to a darker emotion.
“We’re still trying to get our first win in the homestretch,” Sales said. “It’s kind of depressing.”
The UMass offensive lineman has played for three coaches: Don Brown, Kevin Morris, and Charley Molnar. Under Brown and Morris, Sales and his teammates were part of the Football Championship Subdivision, and the result was wins: 23 in the four previous seasons.
This year, UMass’s first in FBS competition, has led to a far more humbling bounty: a winless season. To add to the punishment, the Minutemen (0-9, 0-5 Mid-American Conference) are stuck in their deepest trough of what might be the program’s most challenging season.
They are coming off a 63-0 pasting last Saturday against Northern Illinois. In their last four losses, UMass has been outscored, 188-21. For four straight games, Molnar’s white flag has been the insertion of A.J. Doyle following the unsettling gear-grinding of starting quarterback Mike Wegzyn.
“Maybe just bad football,” said Sales when asked why the last four results have not been in question. “Missed assignments, lack of effort on the field. For me, my feeling about it is it’s a little hard. I’m a senior. Probably my last time playing football ever. With this devastating record, it’s kind of hard for me.”
The four consecutive wallops have hurt even more because the Minutemen believed they had been gaining traction. On Sept. 22, they dropped a 27-16 road game to Miami (Ohio). The Minutemen piled up 471 yards of total offense.
A week later at Gillette Stadium, against then-undefeated Ohio, UMass dropped a 37-34 decision. Wegzyn completed 27 of 51 passes for 373 yards and four touchdowns. Wegzyn didn’t throw a single interception.
In the last four games, Wegzyn has been intercepted three times. Wegzyn has not thrown for a touchdown since Sept. 29 against Ohio.
“We’re just having problems offensively sustaining drives,” Molnar said. “That’s hurt the whole football team because what it does is that we’re not turning the field. If you don’t score, at least you want to turn the field, get a good kick, and now the other offense has a long way to go. When you’re going three and out, you’re not even getting 10 yards.”
The flickering offense is especially vexing to Molnar. The first-year UMass boss built his career on offense. Molnar was Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator prior to his Amherst arrival. Molnar prefers a fast-paced, no-huddle, spread offense.
Lately, the fastest thing about UMass’s offense is how rapidly it cycles through three futile downs before booting the ball away.
The defense has played stoutly at times. But with the offense sputtering, the defense has buckled under sustained pressure. Northern Illinois recorded 610 yards of total offense. Before the end of last Saturday’s rout, Molnar believed several of his players lost their commitment to finishing the game in the right way.
“It surely wasn’t an epidemic,” Molnar said. “It was just a few guys. We have so many guys playing hard and finishing what they do. The guys who lost focus were very obvious to me.”
The Minutemen hope they’ve bottomed out. They have one final road game on Saturday against Akron before closing out 2012 with two Gillette appearances. Their best crack at their first win might be coming up.
Akron (1-9, 0-6) has lost seven straight. The Zips are coming off a 35-24 loss to Kent State in which they held a 24-14 halftime lead. Akron hasn’t beaten an FBS opponent since Nov. 26, 2010, when it beat Buffalo, 22-14.
Akron, however, has been competitive. Quarterback Dalton Williams has passed for 3,003 yards and 24 touchdowns, both best in the conference.
Williams will be facing a defense that will be without safety Christian Birt. On Wednesday, Molnar announced the junior is no longer with the team because of academic reasons. In six games, Birt recorded 36 tackles and one interception.
Birt’s dismissal will give UMass’s younger players even more looks. First-year defensive backs Khary Bailey-Smith, Joe Colton, Trey Dudley-Giles, and D’Metrius Williams are among the 30 freshmen and redshirt freshmen who have played this season.
“We have a lot of talent, especially young players,” senior safety Darren Thellen said. “Coach has brought in a lot of good young talent on the team. If they continue to play together, they’ll be a very dangerous team in the future.”