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UMass isn’t taking winless opponent lightly

AMHERST — The milestones of a collegiate football program moving up a division are not necessarily pleasant. First loss. First shutout loss. First 50-point loss. Those are what you call growing pains.

At some point, though, the excruciating rites of passage give way to sweet little steps forward.

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For the University of Massachusetts, the inaugural Football Bowl Subdivision victory came near the end of last season. Two weekends ago, the Minutemen’s unprecedented accomplishment was winning at home.

And that second “first” leads us to the threshold of something mind-blowing for a 1-6 team: For the first time in its 19-game FBS era, UMass (1-2 MAC) will enter a contest with more victories than its opponent. Western Michigan will arrive at Gillette Stadium for Saturday’s 3 p.m. game at 0-8. So you might say UMass is the alpha dog in this fight.

You might say that, but Charley Molnar wouldn’t.

“We don’t think that way,” said the second-year UMass coach said when the concept was laid out for him following Tuesday’s practice.

As he spoke, his face wore the patient smile of someone addressing an inquisitive child.

“For us, right now, every first down on offense, every stop on defense, every good play on special teams is hard-earned,” he said. “We don’t look at anything as ‘UMass should win.’ ”

Of course not. Molnar is a football coach, and football coaches don’t take anything for granted. They don’t allow their players to stray even a half-yard from the mission. That’s true whether your team is bracing itself for the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa or for a home game against the Broncos. Not the ones from Denver, the ones from Kalamazoo.

It was out in that small Midwestern city where Glenn Miller and his orchestra once so longingly made a swing, after all, that Western Michigan put a beating on UMass last season to the tune of 52-14. Tyler Van Tubbergen threw five touchdown passes on that autumn day, and the quarterback also ran for a score.

But that was then, and this is now: Van Tubbergen has an injured shoulder and has been replaced by redshirt freshman, Zach Terrell, who in two starts has produced one TD pass and three interceptions with seven sacks.

Terrell is one of 23 freshmen to start a game this season for injury-riddled Western Michigan, which has lost its four MAC games by an average of 25 points.

Molnar doesn’t view the Broncos as a bad team, though. Drawing from the standard coaching lexicon, he sees a team that wants something badly.

“Western Michigan should be very hungry for a win, just as we were when we didn’t have one,” said Molnar, who a decade ago spent two seasons as an assistant in Kalamazoo. “And a hungry team is always a dangerous team. So we’ll be ready to get Western Michigan’s best shot.”

Likewise, Molnar understands there will be expectation in the stands in Foxborough that UMass will give the home fans its best shot. Saturday’s game begins a three-game stretch at Gillette, and the presence of a winless opponent across the line offers the Minutemen an opportunity to start building their fan base beyond the 18,000 average attendance that this season has seen at the 68,756-seat stadium.

“It’s very important to me that our fans support our program,” said Molnar. “It’s equally important that we give the fans a football team that they want to support.”

And soon. There would seem to be some urgency to get that support system in place this weekend, because a week later the visitor will be unbeaten Northern Illinois (7-0, 3-0), ranked No. 23 nationally.

“I do know that Northern Illinois is on the horizon,” Molnar acknowledged, “but man, oh man, we’ve got our work cut out for us against Western Michigan.”

There’s some coachspeak in that, to be sure, but Molnar has evidence to support his focus-on-the-present position. UMass has struggled all season, particularly on offense. The Minutemen rank dead last in the MAC in scoring offense, at a measly 7.9 points a game, and it’s a balanced (lack of) attack, 11th in the conference in rushing and 12th in passing. The defense, which is No. 3 in the league against the pass and No. 2 in the red zone, has kept games close. Sometimes.

Even a stout showing against Western Michigan would ensure nothing. The Minutemen’s home victory over Miami of Ohio two weekends ago sure didn’t elevate their game for last Saturday’s visit to Buffalo, a 32-3 loss.

Molnar assumes nothing, but he doesn’t deny that there’ll be something in it for his players Saturday when they run onto the field amid the cheers of a sea (a pond?) of maroon and black.

“We recognize the fact that playing at home is always an advantage,” he said. “Is it a 1-point advantage, a 3-point, or a 7-point advantage? I can’t answer that.

“But the way the crowd was at that last [home] game, our players have been talking about it. It made a difference.”

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