Of all the games on the University of Massachusetts’ home schedule, coach Charley Molnar knows Saturday’s noon game against Vanderbilt carries extra weight.
For the first time in the history of the Minutemen’s program, a Southeastern Conference team will travel to play on their home field.
When Molnar tried to get players to picture the vision he had for the program as it made the leap to the Football Bowl Subdivision a year ago, these were the kinds of game he wanted them to see.
“These games are vitally important to our program — for recruiting purposes, to show players that we want to be a player on the national level,” Molnar said. “So we have to play marquee programs. When we play these games, it gives our players a chance to compete against some of the best teams in the country, and all competitive athletes want to measure themselves against the very best, and this is a great opportunity.
“It’s to not only uphold the pride and tradition of the Mid-American Conference, but also for UMass and for the state of Massachusetts. We feel a great amount of responsibility to play a team like this at home and to really do our very best.”
By the same token, for a team that has lost its first three games this season by a combined 106-21, this will be another challenge.
Those issues start with the Commodores’ play-making wideout, Jordan Matthews, who leads the SEC with 24 catches, good for 395 yards and two touchdowns.
“They’ve got an elite wide receiver, one of the best in the country,” Molnar said. “He’ll be a high draft pick.”
Matthews had his biggest game of the young season, a 10-catch, 178-yard, one-touchdown performance in an opening loss to Ole Miss, at the same time the team was dealing with the suspension of the other half of their celebrated receiving tandem, Chris Boyd.
Even in the absence of Boyd, who was kicked off the team this week after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor in connection with the alleged rape of an unconscious female student, it will be hard for Matthews to become a bigger focal point of the Commodores’ offense.
Of the 47 passes that Vanderbilt quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels has completed this season, half have gone to Matthews, who accounts for 35 percent of the Commodores’ 1,136 yards of total offense.
“[Carta-Samuels] can get the ball to him,” Molnar said. “Sometimes teams have a great play-maker, but they’re saddled with a quarterback who can’t get the ball to him, or a scheme that doesn’t allow them to take advantage of that player’s skill. But they’ve done a great job of featuring him and getting him the football. Certainly we’ll have our work cut out for us on Saturday.”
Although the scoreboard didn’t show it after UMass’s 37-7 loss at Kansas State last weekend, the Minutemen moved the ball as well as they have all season.
Their 309 yards of total offense marked a season high, and for the second straight week, sophomore wideout Tajae Sharpe provided the bulk of it with a nine-catch, 98-yard effort.
“Virtually every time he’s been targeted now the last two games, he’s caught the football,” Molnar said.
Freshman running back Stacey Bedell has given the Minutemen consistency out of the backfield, going for 81 yards on 23 carries against the Wildcats, but Molnar is still waiting for the Long Island product to break out.
“He’s got the talent to hit a home run every once in a while,” Molnar said. “But I’m happy right now with doubles and a few triples.”
The jury’s still out on Molnar’s decision to switch quarterbacks after the Minutemen’s 24-14 loss to Football Championship Subdivision opponent Maine two weeks ago, going with A.J. Doyle over Mike Wegzyn.
On the one hand, Doyle completed 21 of 31 passes for 186 yards. On the other, he threw two picks and was sacked once.
“A.J. was efficient — not spectacular, but efficient — playing quarterback and I think that’s a great first step for our offense,” Molnar said. “We were looking for a solution and A.J. seems like he might be part of the solution for our offense to get on track. Some of our reasons for not being as good as possible has been injuries. I think that plagues all football teams.”
A season that’s started rough won’t get any better with another tough opponent ahead, but Molnar continues to preach patience.
“Internally there hasn’t been many challenges,” Molnar said. “Externally it’s just making sure that our fan base understands we are getting better. Hang with us. We really need their support. We really need them out at the games. We need them being loud. It’s such a great sport that great teams feed off their fans. We need our fans to start coming out and getting behind us. I think that would help.
“I love when they’re passionate. I don’t blame them for being disappointed in our record. They want us to win every game and so do I, so do our players. We want to win every game. When they’re hurting, obviously we’re hurting, too.”Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.