MANHATTAN, Kan. — The last time the University Massachusetts played here, the Minutemen mounted a second-half comeback that ended 4 points short of an upset.
That was in 2009, when UMass was a semi-frequent Football Championship Subdivision contender with a roster that included eight future NFL players.
Much has changed for UMass in the four years since: new coach, entirely new team, new conference, and new expectations following last season’s move to the Football Bowl Subdivision.
On Saturday, UMass showed some of the promise that comes with a roster made up of so many freshmen and sophomores.
In sophomore quarterback A.J. Doyle’s first start of the season, UMass took a 7-6 lead into the second quarter before succumbing, 37-7, to the speed, size, and experience of defending Big 12 champion Kansas State in front of 52,958 at sold-out Bill Snyder Family Stadium.
Sure, the score didn’t resemble that 21-17 game four years ago. Sure, it’s another bump in a rocky 1-14 orientation to college football’s top division, but this bruise might not feel so deep for the 39-point underdogs, thanks to the first 15 minutes for the Minutemen (0-3) and the encouraging moments throughout that made the deficit feel closer.
“We knew we needed to play a perfect game to hang with these guys, but our team had a sense of confidence that we haven’t had in a while,” UMass coach Charley Molnar said. “I’ve been to this show before and the wheels have come off. Today, they were loose but they never came off.
“That’s progress. It’s a small sign for me, but certainly something we can sink our teeth into and we can grow from.”
Doyle, who split time with sophomore Mike Wegzyn in losses to Wisconsin and Maine this season, had a lot to do with that, passing for 186 yards in completing 21 of 31 attempts. He added 37 yards rushing in playing start to finish in his second career start.
The quarterback decision was made Wednesday because “the team needed a spark and needed to find a solution to get out of the offensive doldrums,” Molnar said.
Molnar was pleased with the result.
“He was on the money today,” he said of Doyle. “He doesn’t always do that in practice, but today he was sharp and his decision-making was pretty good.
“I felt very confident with him out there tonight.”
Doyle competently moved a Minutemen offense that was ranked 118th out of 125 FBS teams going into the game. UMass had 309 yards of offense, well above its 238.5 average.
After an 0-for-2 start through the air — including an interception returned 38 yards for a touchdown —
First Doyle orchestrated a drive covering 77 yards in 16 plays, spanning 9 minutes, 39 seconds before Blake Lucas’s 33-yard field goal attempt was blocked.
UMass’s next chance came a little more than two minutes later, when Antoine Tharpe intercepted Jake Waters at the Kansas State 46.
Doyle completed a 27-yard pass to Tajae Sharpe inside the K-State 10 to set up Stacey Bedell’s first career touchdown, a 2-yard run that gave UMass the 7-6 lead with six seconds left in the first quarter.
Bedell ran for a career-high 81 yards on 23 carries, while Sharpe had nine receptions for a career-best 98 yards.
“We definitely see that when we’re clicking, we can move the ball on any defense,” Sharpe said.
But the lead was short-lived, perhaps predictably, as Kansas State (2-1) held a 2-to-1 time of possession advantage in the second quarter to outscore the Minutemen, 21-0, and lead, 27-7, at halftime.
And while the Minutemen crossed midfield five more times, twice moving inside the Wildcat 30, they couldn’t score again, even as they held the Wildcats to 10 second-half points.
“I feel like we left a lot of points out there,” Doyle said.
Still, even that sounds like progress.