NASHVILLE — For the second week in a row the University of Massachusetts let an 11-point second-half lead slip away and lost a close game to a team from one of the power conferences in college football. Saturday’s 34-31 loss at Vanderbilt of the Southeastern Conference was especially painful for the Minutemen because they had a chance to tie or win in the final seconds.
Blake Lucas missed a 22-yard field goal with six seconds left that would have sent the game into overtime.
“It should have never come to that kick,” UMass quarterback Blake Frohnapfel said. “We should have scored on the play before.We had Mark [Michel] open on a flat route and I overshot him a bit. I should have made that play.”
“Frohnapfel has to make that throw at the end of the game for a touchdown,” UMass coach Mark Whipple said.
In a replay of last week’s loss to Colorado of the Pac-12, UMass led, 31-20, in the second half.
With a little less than nine minutes to play on Saturday, Vanderbilt’s Stephen Weatherly broke through the line to block Brian McDonald’s punt. Weatherly picked up the ball and ran it in from 11 yards out to cut the UMass lead to 31-26.
“We didn’t touch that guy on the punt,” Whipple said. “Our guys think they know more than they do sometimes. We’ve worked on that in practice. We made a bad special teams play, and they [Vanderbilt] made a good one.”
UMass (0-3) stopped Vanderbilt on downs inside the UMass 30 with 4:25 to play, but the Minutemen couldn’t run out the clock and punted back to the Commodores.
With a little more than a minute to play Vanderbilt quarterback Patton Robinette threw a ball up for grabs near the goal line. UMass defensive back Randall Jette leaped with C.J. Duncan, the Commodores receiver. Jette appeared to have the interception but as the players were falling to the ground Duncan wrestled the ball away to give Vanderbilt the ball at the 4-yard line. Ralph Webb ran for the touchdown on the next play and, with 1:08 remaining UMass trailed for the first time in the game.
“The quarterback bobbled the ball and I looked into the backfield a little too long,” Jette said. “I hustled back but I just couldn’t make the play. I love to have the ball thrown my way at the end of a game, but I have to make the play. That’s a play my teammates count on me to make.”
Whipple agreed. “Two weeks in a row a guy beats Randall Jette, who’s supposed to be our best corner. He has to step up and make that play,” Whipple said.
Frohnapfel led the Minutemen to a touchdown on their first possession of the game, completing six of seven passes, including a 13-yard touchdown to Rodney Mills.
Mills caught another touchdown pass the next time UMass had the ball, but this touchdown, a 53-yarder on a fake punt, was thrown by McDonald, the punter.
McDonald’s last touchdown pass was on Oct. 15, 2011, when he was the quarterback for Fitchburg State.
Midway through the second quarter Lorenzo Woodley, who led UMass with 43 yards rushing, fumbled on his 10 and accidentally knocked the ball into the end zone. Adam Butler recovered for a Vanderbilt touchdown, cutting the UMass lead to 17-13.
“That was a toss sweep that went through Woodley’s hands,” Whipple said. “We can’t give away points like that against a team of this caliber.”
Woodley recovered from his gaffe to make a big 35-yard run with a third-down screen pass, and then score on a 2-yard run that gave the Minutemen a 24-13 lead with 3:50 left in the first half.
But Vanderbilt (1-2) answered with seven seconds left on a 3-yard jump pass from Robinette to tight end Steven Scheu to make it 24-20 at the half.
Aided by two pass interference penalties, the Minutemen took a 31-20 lead on a third-quarter drive that was capped by Woodley’s 2-yard run. But those were the last points UMass would score.
Frohnapfel completed 17 of 34 passes for 205 yards, but he was only 5 of 18 in the second half.
“I came here because I had a chance to be the guy,” Frohnapfel said. “Today I had a chance to make some big plays, but I didn’t make them. It’s disappointing. As a team, we’ve got to learn to step on the gas when we’ve got the lead.”
UMass travels to Penn State next Saturday.
“We’re going to face a great quarterback and a great team,” Whipple said. “We’ve got to look in the mirror and all play a little better. If everyone does their job better we can be a winning football team. But you can’t give away points like we did today.”