The second he saw the football squirm from the grip of running back Stacey Bedell, University of Massachusetts coach Charley Molnar tried to wrap his head around how it happened.
Trying to pry the football from Bedell in practice was like trying to take dynamite to a bank safe.
“He’s taken some extremely vicious hits in practice and never, never loses the football,” Molnar said. “That’s why I was so surprised.”
It could have been rust. It had been practically two years since Bedell had seen real action. A broken collarbone put an end to his freshman season in 2012 after just two games and three carries, forcing him to redshirt.
But Bedell was bursting at the seams to get back on the field, looking for ways to leapfrog returning starter Jordan Broadnax on the depth chart.
“He definitely showed that he was ready,” Molnar said. “He was competing like crazy to be the starting running back. He wasn’t going to be happy to be the first man off the bench.”
It could have been the way the Minutemen had prepared. In practice, Molnar is quick with the whistle to put an end to plays in order to keep players safe.
“He was going down, actually his forward progress had been stopped but he wasn’t on the ground, he was on top of a defensive player,” Molnar said of a play in last Saturday’s opener against Wisconsin. “So, technically it was still a live-ball situation, and as he was churning for more yardage his body turned in such a way that the defensive player had a clear shot at the ball and was able to rake it out.”
Looking ahead to the Minutemen’s home opener against Maine on Saturday at Gillette Stadium, unforced errors were high on Molnar’s list of things to address.
Even though Bedell’s 70 rushing yards were one of the few highlights in the 45-0 loss to the Badgers, his fumble came on UMass’s fourth offensive play.
For a team that went into the game knowing it had to be near perfect just to compete, it was the first sign that it wouldn’t be.
“We went to Wisconsin to win,” Molnar said. “We didn’t go there with the idea for any sort of moral victory or to hang in there. This is what we knew and we talked about it all summer camp, we would have to play a perfect game in order for us to succeed. Obviously we didn’t, from the very first series in fact.”
Each week, Molnar posts the team’s miscues in the locker room for the players to see. It’s the kind of leaderboard no player wants to land on. But after committing seven penalties and two turnovers, it was a clear message that the Minutemen sabotage themselves if they expected to win.
“We put it out there what the penalties were and who caused them,” Molnar said. “You certainly don’t want to be the leader in that statistic on our football team.”
When he looked at the mistakes, Molnar couldn’t help but imagine how his team would look if it cleaned them up.
“We had seven penalties,” he said. “Six of them were presnap fouls, five illegal procedures, one delay of game, then the seventh one happened on special teams. You take those out of there and we play better football than we played against some of the better opponents that we faced in 2012. So, we’ve made progress. The guys knew it. But at the end of the day, a loss is still a loss.”
Facing a Maine team that led the Colonial Athletic Association in scoring defense last season, things won’t be much easier. But Molnar saw some positive signs against Wisconsin.
“We weren’t late hitting, we weren’t cheap-shotting, were weren’t having too many men on the field, things that happen to undisciplined football teams. We weren’t doing those,” he said. “It was just guys that were losing their poise because of the intensity of the game, the competition level. Everybody was just really, maybe playing almost too tight. So, I’m thinking now that this game our team will be more relaxed and play free and easy.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.