FOXBOROUGH — When a football team has just two wins in its previous 19 games, it receives attention for all the wrong reasons.
The public perception of the team deteriorates, the coaching staff scrapes its motivational toolkit clean, and the stakes proliferate with each loss.
The University of Massachusetts has been playing with that level of urgency for two seasons now.
Last year it went just 1-11, and entering Saturday’s matchup against 0-8 Western Michigan, the Minutemen held just one win through seven games. The game at Gillette Stadium was close to a must-win for UMass.
Unfortunately for the Minutemen, they missed the memo. Their misery grew as the highly aggressive Broncos left New England with their first victory of the season, 31-30, before 20,571.
UMass coach Charley Molnar sent his team out for a game-deciding 2-point conversion in the waning seconds, but A.J. Doyle’s pass sailed far over the head of intended receiver Elgin Long.
“That was obviously my decision,” Molnar said. “We just felt like if we went into an OT situation we would potentially get into a kicking battle and obviously our kicking game isn’t the best at this moment in time. I felt like we could put the ball in the hands of our best players, guys who have made plays for us not only today but consistently throughout the season.”
After the Broncos took a 31-24 lead, UMass (1-3 Mid-American Conference) got the ball with 4:55 to play. Freshman running back Lorenzo Woodley moved the Minutemen downfield, taking his ninth rush of the drive in from 2 yards.
But with Molnar’s concerns, Doyle was sent back out for the conversion attempt.
The Broncos capped a steady drive to start the third quarter with Zach Terrell’s 14-yard touchdown pass to Corey Davis. That gave Western Michigan its first lead of the game at 24-21.
UMass responded by tying it up on Blake Lucas’s 37-yard field goal into the wind.
Halfway through the fourth quarter, UMass escaped serious trouble from its 2-yard line with a 51-yard punt by Colter Johnson, but Western Michigan (1-4 MAC) turned the tables to retake the lead.
“There were times when our back was against the wall and we responded,” said Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck.
With the Broncos at their 46 and UMass on a blitz, Terrell spotted Davis behind the Minuteman secondary and pinpointed a pass for a 54-yard touchdown.
The Minutemen opened the game with a bang. After the Broncos deferred, Khary Bailey-Smith returned the kickoff 90 yards for a 7-0 lead.
Western Michigan then manufactured its second-longest drive (by time) in program history; it lasted 8:44. Going 57 yards on 18 plays, the Broncos settled for Andrew Haldeman’s 36-yard field goal with 6:05 left in the first quarter.
Just minutes into the second quarter, UMass’s Tajae Sharpe, running a slant, took Doyle’s pass 28 yards to the Broncos 8. After a horse-collar penalty gave UMass extra yards on its next play, Jamal Wilson finished the drive with his first career touchdown, a 3-yard run that gave UMass a 14-3 lead.
Antoin Scriven turned a screen pass from Terrell into a 31-yard touchdown, capping another big Broncos drive.
Doyle worked with 6-foot-4-inch, 260-pound tight end Rob Blanchflower for UMass’ next touchdown. Blanchflower barreled down the sideline on a 55-yard reception, to the 1-yard line. After a rush resulted in lost yardage, Doyle found Blanchflower from 6 yards, giving UMass a 21-10 lead with 8:23 left in the half.
“We definitely changed things up [offensively],” Doyle said. “And things worked out really good for us. We showed we can put some points up on the board.”