A strong start and an even better finish. That’s what the University of Massachusetts football team is looking for on Saturday afternoon when the Minutemen host Miami University at Gillette Stadium.
UMass is 0-5 and second halves have been costly. The Minutemen have scored just 34 points (an average of 6.8) and have allowed 158 (31.6 average). The third quarter has been the most challenging, with opponents outscoring UMass, 56-0.
The Minutemen started well in the last two games, against Vanderbilt and Bowling Green, but ran out of gas.
“Defensively we really have played well in the first half of both games — Bowling Green and Vanderbilt,’’ said coach Charley Molnar. “Offensively, this last game, it was probably the second-best defense we’ve faced all year. We just couldn’t get ourselves uncorked in the first half. I thought we left the defense on the field way too long and the defense was a little bit worn out in the second half. So, offensively, we’re really committed to making something happen, starting fast and not easing into this thing. We have to come out, get the crowd behind us and get some momentum going.’’
Two sophomores have stood out recently — wide receiver Tajae Sharpe and running back Jamal Wilson.
Wilson had an outstanding game against Bowling Green, amassing 119 yards on 20 carries.
“Jamal had a great breakout game,’’ said Sharpe. “He comes to work every day, he works extremely hard. He’s a great teammate. He’s a fun guy to be around, so we were all excited to see him have one of those games. Jamal is a very good back and we knew when he got an opportunity, he would make the most of it. He definitely stepped up and played a big role in the Bowling Green game. We definitely knew what he was capable of.’’
Molnar said Wilson’s success is carved from his hard work in practice.
“He’s barely missed a practice in my two years,’’ said Molnar. “He’s one of the hardest workers on the football team. He’s a naturally bright football player. He has an understanding not only of his role, but the guys who surround him. He plays with a lot of confidence because he knows what he’s doing. He’s really developed an all-around game. He just needed an opportunity to get out on the field and show it. Saturday was a great showcase for him. Unfortunately, we didn’t win the game.’’
Sharpe had three receptions in that game for 38 yards and his third touchdown of the year. In five games, Sharpe is the top receiver on the team with 279 yards on 31 catches. He said even though the team is winless, everyone is optimistic.
“We’re just trying to get better every game,’’ said Sharpe. “I think we’ve got to continue to push each other and as long as we keep fighting, I think we’ll be fine. We’ve got to come out strong and try to keep that up for four quarters instead of playing for a half or a few quarters.’’
Sharpe has developed a comfort zone with starting quarterback A.J. Doyle, also a sophomore.
“We’ve just got to get our timing right and continue to work hard,’’ said Sharpe. “We have a great relationship on and off the field. We both came in together as freshmen last year so we’ve been working with each other since last summer. It continues to grow as the season goes on.’’
Molnar said Sharpe has made a commitment to be the best player possible.
“He really changed in the offseason,’’ said the coach. “He became a tireless worker in the weight room, he was one of the top performers in our winter workouts and carried that over to spring practice. He very rarely misses any part of practice. A.J. understood that Tajae is the guy who if you put the ball in the vicinity, he’s going to go make a play on it. A.J. has really taken advantage of that.’’
Miami is 0-5 and made a coaching change earlier in the week, replacing Don Treadwell with Mike Bath, who was the quarterback and wide receivers coach.
Sharpe said they are focused on what they are doing rather than what the opposition’s game plan is and the goal is to change their fortunes.
“We pretty much have the same game plan even though they had a coaching change,’’ said Sharpe. “We still want to go in there and be aggressive and focus on some of the things they tried to do against us last year.
“We’re all about the positives, we can’t focus on the negatives even though we came up short. We need to keep pushing each other to keep striving for the best and we know [we can turn it around].’’
Against Bowling Green last week, it appeared the Minutemen were worn down but Sharpe said he didn’t think that was the case.
“I don’t think we kind of lost steam, I think we might have lost a little bit of focus along the way,’’ said Sharpe. “We have to keep our minds on the game and don’t let little things distract us. We definitely fought hard from the first quarter to the fourth and that’s what coach Molnar was most proud about. As long as we continue to do that and continue to get better, we’ll be fine.’’
Some of that involves making better decisions.
“Being smart and making smart decisions has definitely been one of our downfalls,’’ said Sharpe. “I think we’re continuing to progress as the season goes along and if our maturity level continues to grow, that will help our performance on the field.’’
And if their first victory could come at Gillette Stadium, all the better.
“It would be great for our team and our fans,’’ said Sharpe. “We’re looking forward to doing so. It’s definitely exciting playing in an NFL stadium and knowing guys like Tom Brady walk through the hallways. It gives you a lot of confidence and when you walk into that stadium, you want to give your best performance.’’Nancy Marrapese-Burrell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.