AMHERST — Even someone whose glass is perpetually half-full eventually is going to find it hard to drink the Kool-Aid when taking a long, hard look at the University of Massachusetts football team.
As the Minutemen prepare to close out their second season of Bowl Subdivision play with a visit to Ohio University Friday afternoon, coach Charley Molnar, an optimist’s optimist if ever there was one, acknowledged that whatever progress he and his players have made has not shown itself in a way that matters to the outside world.
“We’re not ready to win yet,” said Molnar. “We don’t have enough pieces right now.”
The coach was speaking of the big picture, of the ongoing status of a program that last season was 1-11, 1-7 in the MAC, and stands on the cusp of repeating that dismal record. But Molnar could very well have said the same thing specifically about this week’s curtain-closing contest, in which some key pieces will be either missing or sputtering.
The starting quarterback, sophomore A.J. Doyle, has been in and out of the lineup all season because of an ankle injury. He will play Friday, and is looking for redemption from last week’s train wreck of a performance. Doyle was 6 of 16 for just 45 yards, reaching the end zone only once — on a pick-6 by Central Michigan that was one of three interceptions in a 37-0 rout.
“There’s a lot of things that I need to go out and just prove to myself,” said Doyle, “not even to anyone else.”
He’ll be handing off to a limping ground game that is down to a sixth-stringer, Shadrach Abrokwah. After being redshirted all season, the freshman was a workhorse last weekend, running for 93 yards on 20 carries.
Abrokwah, who will be expected to carry the load again Friday, didn’t mind losing his redshirt so late in the season.
“It was to help the team out,” said the walk-on, who’s hoping his performance might earn him a scholarship. “If that’s the sacrifice I have to make, so be it.”
The most significant absentee will be tight end Rob Blanchflower, who will sit out with an unspecified injury, which is nothing new: He has played in just six games this season. Despite his spotty appearances, the senior is second on the team in both receptions (27) and receiving yards (313).
Blanchflower, who last month was named to the John Mackey Award midseason watch list as one of the nation’s top tight ends, ends his career as the school’s leading receiver at that position, with 1,164 yards.
“Due to a series of unfortunate setbacks, we feel it is in Rob’s best interest to allow him to rest and recover,” Molnar said in a statement. “I am confident that once his injury heals, he’ll shift his focus to the next phase of his football career, which will be preparing himself for the NFL draft.”
Seeing Blanchflower move on to the next level will be a symbolic victory for UMass, for sure. But this team is in a position where it needs more concrete success. If that comes Friday, against an Ohio team that started out 6-2 but has lost its last three games by 27, 49, and 31 points, so much the better.
Whether you’ve been winning all season or losing week after week, the last taste that’s left in your mouth tends to linger.
“Losing a bowl game at the end of the year feels like it takes away your momentum,” said Molnar, who coached in bowls as an assistant at Notre Dame and Cincinnati. “And then, for a team like us, which has no chance of going to a bowl game, winning your last game would give us momentum.
“I’ve been on both sides of that. I can tell you, a win would go a long way.”
There’s that optimism shining through again. But it’s tempered by a dose of reality.
The coach has praised his players for building and maintaining a sense of togetherness through two difficult seasons. He has called this the first building block of success. Molnar acknowledges, however, that other building blocks are still missing.
“Confidence,” he said. “The ability to put a team away when you have a lead. The ability to win a close game. There are lots of things we haven’t done.”
And then there’s simple mathematics. UMass is just in its second season of playing with FBS-level building blocks.
“We’re another recruiting class away, at least, from having enough able-bodied guys to sustain us through a 12-game season,” said Molnar.
Still . . .
“I think it’s all trending in the right direction,” said the coach. “Unfortunately, I can’t demonstrate that to the outside world in wins and losses. But internally I think it’s pretty evident.”
Internally? The Minutemen have few victories but lots of togetherness, and Molnar wants us to know that’s eventually going to yield something positive, something the rest of us can see. But on a campus that’s more excited about a basketball program that for the first time in 15 years is ranked, the football coach recognizes why fans might not be drinking from the same half-full glass he does.
“People would rather have us be not a tight team and win,” he said. “I understand that.”