FOXBOROUGH — Charley Molnar understood the perception.
The University of Massachusetts had left the Football Championship Subdivision behind to jump to the Football Bowl Subdivision.
The Maine team it was facing in its home opener Saturday was, in theory, supposed to be beneath the Minutemen.
But the UMass coach knew better.
It was the Minutemen’s first game against an FCS team since moving up, but to Molnar, the labels didn’t matter.
“I knew from looking at their film, looking at their roster, looking at their size it was a pretty even matchup,” he said. “I knew that we would have our hands full.”
Everything about the Black Bears’ 24-14 win was discouraging to UMass, and Molnar wasn’t totally surprised by the outcome.
“I know on paper a lot of people thought that Maine was the favorite by X amount of points and some people thought we should be the favorite because we’re FBS and they’re an FCS team,” Molnar said. “But I think I knew way too much.”
Maine had won three of the previous four meetings, when UMass was a fellow member of the Colonial Athletic Conference. Saturday’s victory was the second in Maine history against an FBS team.
“We didn’t leave Maine behind,” Molnar said. “If nothing else, we probably incentivized Maine to come out and play a great game. Right now, there is no gap between us and them.”
Maine has one of the best defenses in the CAA, and Molnar figured it had the potential to bottle up the UMass offense. He was right. The Minutemen mustered just 265 total yards.
Meanwhile, Maine had 514 total yards and made big plays seem routine.
In the first half, the Black Bears had six plays that went for at least 20 yards. Marcus Wasilewski had a 48-yard hookup with Justin Perillo on Maine’s opening drive, and Rickey Stevens sprinted 35 yards to the end zone in the second quarter to give his team a 10-7 lead.
With 267 yards, Wasilewski (20 of 28) leapfrogged his coach, Jack Cosgrove, into ninth place on the Black Bears’s all-time passing list.
Zedreic Joseph and Stevens combined for 130 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries.
“They played high-caliber football,” said UMass junior linebacker Stanley Andre. “Quite frankly, I’m impressed. They played well, they stuck with it and they came out with the win.”
Maine’s three turnovers kept the game close in the first half. But UMass had its own issues.
After a 45-0 opening loss to Wisconsin, the Mintuemen came out flat again. From sophomore return man Trey Dudley-Giles muffing a punt and later fair-catching another inside his own 10, to senior punter Colter Johnson shanking two of his first three kicks, special teams errors — both mental and physical — killed UMass drives before they got started.
“We’re just not good enough of a football team to overcome that,” Molnar said.
When Wasilewski sneaked through a tiny hole and went 39 yards through the defense to put Maine up, 24-7, in the third quarter, UMass’s fate was all but sealed. The score sucked the air out of the scattered crowd at Gillette Stadium.
Coming off the field, Molnar heard the boos of a fanbase looking for any signs of progress.
“Maybe for the first time, I had somebody when I was walking off the field just blistering me. He’s entitled to it,” Molnar said. “He’s disappointed and, gosh darn it, so am I.”
The Minutemen extended their losing streak at Gillette Stadium to seven games after going winless at home last season.
Since arriving, Molnar has been as much a salesman for the program as a coach.
He understands that losses like Saturday’s make it tougher to sell the program.
“The bandwagon’s been fairly light anyway,” Molnar said. “So if a couple more jump off, that’s their call. All I know is this: We are a better football team. We’re playing hard. We don’t always play smart, but we’re playing hard and I really believe the fruits of our labor are going to show.”
But 14 games into its FBS existence, UMass is still going through obvious growing pains.
“In three or four years when we have our program developed, when we’ve got the right guys in there, it should be a different story,” Molnar said. “Can’t promise you that, but it should be a different story.
“But today is Maine’s day. Four years from now is irrelevant. That’s just hypothetical. The reality of it is that there is no gap between us.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.