Ellis Merriweather strode to midfield for the captain’s meeting as six of his family members peered through the chain-link fence at Allen E. Paulson Stadium. The UMass junior running back made his Division 1 debut Saturday in the unlikeliest of circumstances. Less than a month ago, UMass wasn’t even planning on playing football due to the coronavirus pandemic. Less than two weeks ago, the season-opening game at Georgia Southern didn’t even exist on the schedule. In fact, no games did because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Edwina and Eric Merriweather, Ellis’s parents, were among the small support section in attendance. The Merriweathers made the 250-mile drive southeast from Alpharetta, Ga., to Statesboro on Saturday morning. When UMass walked toward the field, Eric Merriweather watched his son, who wore No. 7, until they locked eyes.
“Well, I wasn’t sure if there was going to be a season or not, but by the same token, I was really glad they decided to play,” Eric Merriweather said. “It was euphoric, just for the simple fact that it was something that wasn’t anticipated. We had been checking the news sites and the websites hoping that it did happen, and when they finally did schedule the game, it was amazing. It’s awesome to be here.”
In year of twists and turns, largely in part due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Minutemen (0-1) opened — and potentially closed — the 2020 season with a 41-0 blowout loss at Georgia Southern. The only reason this game occurred was because Appalachian State had canceled a midweek game against the Eagles (3-1) due to the coronavirus. For UMass to schedule any more games, that’s how it must play out.
The Merriweathers were among the 4,856 fans at Paulson Stadium, where 25 percent of its capacity of 25,000 was allowed to watch in person.
Ellis Merriweather, a bruising 6-foot-1-inch, 220-pound junior, was a football and basketball standout on the Alpharetta High School football and basketball teams before spending two years at Garden City (Kan.) Community College. He transferred to UMass and was voted a captain after last year’s leading rusher, Bilal Ally, transferred. So Merriweather, who topped the depth chart, got the most carries Saturday with 16 but was limited to 21 yards.
“He’s been playing ball since he was probably about 6 or 7 years old, to now see him have this progress and playing at this level is awesome” said Edwina Merriweather. “The UMass fans are happy that our kids are out here playing, we’d hate to see a season go in the pot.”
Since Oct. 5, UMass football has conducted 300 coronavirus tests with no positives. Overall, three positives of 2,600 tests have been reported since late June.
Walt Bell, UMass’s second-year coach, lauded his players' diligence in following protocols on their first trip off campus.
“Our kids were first-class,” Bell said. “They traveled the right way, prepared the right way, were very respectful of everyone that we came in contact with. I’m proud our guys got a chance to go play the game they loved.”
Bell did not reveal a starting quarterback until Milton’s Mike Fallon, a redshirt senior, took the Minutemen’s first snap.
Fallon, who went 7 of 12 for 41 yards and an interception and ran for 31 yards on 4 rushes, had attempted just two career passes entering the game. Fallon’s father, Mike Sr., quarterbacked the Minutemen from 1976-77. Redshirt sophomore Josiah Johnson, who also plays tight end, quarterbacked the majority of the second half, and went 6 for 9 for 39 yards and an interception.
“With a limited amount of practice, that’s what led us with Fallon to start the game,” Bell said. “Moving forward, depending on who our next opponent is, hoping that we get some more chances to play, you’ll probably see all three of them again.”
Freshman quarterback Will Koch led UMass with 41 rushing yards on four second-half carries. Junior receiver Samuel Emilus made four catches for 28 yards. UMass is a young team with 19 freshmen on their two-deep depth chart.
Georgia Southern’s version of the triple-option proved unsolvable in the program’s 25th consecutive nonleague win.
Dynamic senior quarterback Shai Werts completed 11 of 16 passes for 128 yards and 3 touchdowns, connecting with Malik Murray on a 47-yard score for a 7-0 lead and with tight end Beau Johnson on TD passes of 8 and 10 yards to expand Georgia Southern’s lead to 21-0. Werts, who posed a dual-threat with this running ability, carried 13 times for 76 yards and a 4-yard touchdown that gave the Eagles a commanding 28-0 halftime lead.
Senior running back Wesley Kennedy III led the Eagles with a a game-high 106 yards rushing and a touchdown on six carries.
UMass willingly stepped up last minute for its first game of a strange 2020 football season. Those in and around the program hope the first game of this COVID-19-truncated season was not the last..
“Whoever we can get a chance to play, we’re ready to go,” Bell said.