FOXBOROUGH — On Saturday at Gillette Stadium, the Minutemen did not submit a flawless first half.
But at halftime, UMass held a 13-0 lead over Buffalo. Quarterback Mike Wegzyn (11 for 20, one touchdown, no interceptions) was efficient if not explosive. The Minutemen hadn’t committed a turnover. The UMass defense had stuffed all five of Buffalo’s third-down attempts. UMass had just one penalty for 15 yards.
“We went into the locker room with great momentum, great confidence, great enthusiasm,” UMass coach Charley Molnar said. “We didn’t play perfect football in any phase of the game. But in all three phases, we made plays in the first half. Not only did we have the lead, but we felt like momentum was on our side.”
But after a 29-19 Buffalo win before 12,649, Molnar pointed to a critical breakdown that robbed UMass (1-10, 1-6 Mid-American Conference) of its rhythm.
In the third quarter, on fourth and 17 at the UMass 32, Colter Johnson prepared to punt. Buffalo’s Adam Redden blew past the Minutemen and blocked Johnson’s kick. Kyndal Minniefield recovered the ball and returned it 33 yards for a game-changing touchdown with 10:31 remaining in the quarter.
Buffalo, once down 13 points, came alive.
“I don’t know whose fault the blocked punt was,” Molnar said. “They’re so bang-bang. They happen so fast. My eyes could have been at one of 100 different places. I just saw the moment before the guy blocked it. How he got there so quickly, I can’t tell you that.”
Mike Cox answered Minnefield’s play with a 3-yard touchdown run later in the third, giving UMass a 19-7 edge.
But the Bulls completed their rally with three unanswered touchdowns. The UMass defense, which had held Buffalo to 145 first-half yards, buckled under the Bulls’ second-half attack (29 points, 260 yards).
“When we needed our defense to be at their very best in the fourth quarter, at that point of the game, I felt they had really been grinded down by Buffalo’s running game,” Molnar said. “If we had done better on offense, they wouldn’t have been on the field so much. Certainly they would have had more juice at the end of the game when we needed them to.”
In the third, Buffalo ticked off an 11-play, 79-yard drive, capped by a 3-yard Joe Licata touchdown pass to Jimmy Gordon.
In the fourth, Licata caught the Minutemen snoozing — UMass didn’t have its safety positioned properly — with a 44-yard pass to Fred Lee. Three plays later, Licata found Alex Neutz for a 6-yard touchdown.
Buffalo capped the scoring when Brandon Murie ran for a 12-yard TD with two minutes remaining.
In the second half, Buffalo converted 6 of 7 third-down opportunities.
“In the fourth quarter, I don’t think we got off the field one time on third down,” said UMass linebacker Perry McIntyre. “That was a big difference. That’s probably why we lost.”
Video review snuffed out UMass’s best chance at a comeback. Trailing, 22-19, Johnson punted the ball inside the Buffalo 10. An instant after Cordero Dixon fielded Johnson’s kick, Randall Jette closed on the returner, forcing him to cough up the ball. It went out of bounds through the side of the end zone for a touchback.
Had Dixon fielded the ball and fumbled, the Minutemen would have recorded a safety. But replay confirmed Dixon never controlled the punt.
While the UMass defense cracked late, a similar outcome was in store for the offense. UMass was without two starting offensive linemen, Anthony Dima and Michael Boland, because of upper-body injuries. Al Leneus and Matt Sparks started in their place.
The Minutemen survived their lack of depth in the first half, when Blake Lucas kicked two field goals and Rob Blanchflower caught a 14-yard touchdown pass.
But the Bulls found their pace in the second half, as Wegzyn was sacked six times. Over two possessions, Wegzyn was sacked four straight times for losses of 28 yards. On UMass’s final snap, Wegzyn was intercepted by Najja Johnson.
Wegzyn’s final numbers: 20 of 40 for 215 yards, one touchdown, and eight sacks. But Wegzyn didn’t receive much help from his running backs. Cox (13 rushes, 31 yards) and Jordan Broadnax (9 carries, 30 yards) didn’t give the UMass offense the balance it required.
“They changed up,” Molnar said. “They brought a little more pressure in the second half — things that normally we would be able to handle. But when you’ve got guys who just aren’t equipped, it certainly started to show itself. We used a number of different tactics to try to neutralize it. But in the end, we just couldn’t protect well enough. We couldn’t run the ball well enough to sustain drives, be consistent, and keep our defense off the field.”Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto.