In many ways, since moving from the Football Championship Subdivision to the Football Bowl Subdivision, the University of Massachusetts program is still unpacking.
Losing 14 of its first 15 games as an FBS program hasn’t made the adjustment easy.
Neither has being outscored by an average of 25.5 points in four consecutive nonconference losses to start the season. But the Minutemen view this week’s trip to Bowling Green to begin their Mid-American Conference schedule as a fresh start, even though it comes against a Falcons team (4-1, 2-0 MAC) that has established itself as one of the best on the block early in the season.
“This is our neighborhood and we want to be top dogs in this neighborhood,” Minutemen coach Charley Molnar said. “Our guys are definitely excited. It certainly doesn’t wipe the slate clean from our previous games, but it does give us a new season, for sure. We want to be competitive in our division [the MAC East] and we’re going to play the best team in our division. So, we’re really excited.”
It wasn’t that long ago that Bowling Green was going through its own growing pains.
In 2010, the Falcons finished in a three-way tie for last in the MAC East and were 2-10 overall in Dave Clawson’s second season as head coach.
Progress has been incremental. Bowling Green posted a 5-7 record in 2011 behind then-sophomore quarterback Matt Schilz’s 28 touchdown passes, then improved to 8-5 and earned a berth in the Military Bowl last season.
This season, with a veteran defense that’s giving up the fewest points per game in the MAC (18.4), the Falcons are already halfway to their win total from a year ago.
It’s a path Molnar would like his Minutemen to ultimately follow.
“If you look at their defense, out of their 11 starters, seven of them are seniors and four of them are juniors,” Molnar said. “And that’s where I would like to be two years from now — to have that kind of experience. I know that we’ll have that based on our roster and how our team is so heavy at the bottom two classes.”
For now, however, UMass is still a work in progress. Defensively, the Minutemen have given up the most rushing yards in the conference (1,135). Offensively, they’ve struggled to move the ball with the MAC’s second-worst rushing (96.5 yards per game) and passing offenses (162).
Still, Molnar came away from a 24-7 loss to Vanderbilt two weeks ago feeling like his team had made strides.
Through three quarters, UMass trailed, 10-7. But things unraveled in the fourth quarter when Vanderbilt put together drives of 80 and 89 yards to seal the victory.
“Defensively, we’ve really settled into a defense that we like and our guys have bought into everything we’ve done defensively,” Molnar said. “I think they feel confident going into this game. We did an excellent job against Vanderbilt, stopping the run game, then we hit a really bad stretch there at the end. For three quarters of the game, we held a pretty good SEC team to 10 points. So I think we can see growth in our team.’’
Finding the end zone still has been an issue. Six of the Minutemen’s nine drives ended in punts against Vanderbilt. One — their first drive of the game — ended in a fumble. Another ended in a missed field goal.
But Molnar took his team’s season-high 406 yards of total offense as the biggest positive.
Quarterback A.J. Doyle completed 20 of his 28 passes for 133 yards in his second straight start before leaving in the fourth quarter because of an injury. Tajae Sharpe caught seven passes for 45 yards, making it three straight games with at least that many catches.
“I think that our offense has picked up its performance,” Molnar said. “I know it’s not necessarily measured in points scored right now, but we’ve gotten more consistent in all phases of offense, in our pass protection, in our run-blocking, our quarterback decision-making. We have more confidence in our offense in general.”
With a bye last week, the Minutemen had extra time to prepare for the Falcons, but they had to also deal with a mini-controversy over a petition started by football alumni who claimed that Molnar and his staff mistreated players and showed video of several Minutemen boxing and wrestling each other in combat drills that have since been banned by the NCAA.
Molnar said he tried to shield his players from the issue as much as possible by taking it on himself.
“Any time there’s a hot-button issue like we just encountered, it’s a little bit of a distraction,” Molnar said. “But really the distraction . . . I tried to take it all on my shoulders. This is my situation, not the team’s, and I took as much of that off them as I possibly could. We really have stayed focused on winning and we know that winning football games is how we’re measured by our fan base and that’s where our focus has been with our players.”