Colleges

UMass football needs answers quickly after two one-sided losses

Massachusetts head coach Mark Whipple during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Duquesne in Amherst, Mass., Saturday, Aug. 25, 2018. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
michael dwyer/AP
UMass coach Mark Whipple’s team is coming off a 34-13 loss to Georgia Southern.

A sparkling start to the UMass football season quickly soured as the Minutemen endured back-to-back trouncings from two groups of Eagles — first Boston College (55-21), then Georgia Southern (34-13).

It’s rare for the first quarter of a team’s schedule to raise more questions than answers, but that’s what has transpired in Amherst.

Beating Duquesne, 63-15, in the opener already feels like a distant memory, replaced by injury concerns and lost sleep over poor execution. A shaky situation at quarterback has fans getting antsy.

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UMass (1-2) is in desperate need of a rebound when it travels to Florida International (1-1) for a game Saturday night in Miami.

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It’s make-or-break time for the Minutemen. Here are three pressing questions as they try to avoid digging themselves into a 1-3 hole.

What’s going on under center?

A time-share at quarterback can be effective . . . until it’s not.

Seniors Andrew Ford and Ross Comis excelled in the opener, combining for 290 yards passing and four touchdowns. Fine and dandy. Facing BC is a different beast, and Ford — who has started all three games — struggled mightily, tossing two interceptions and throwing for just 104 yards. Comis was far more poised yet hardly saw the field in the loss to Georgia Southern.

What gives? Ford didn’t complete a pass of 20 yards in last week’s defeat and threw another pick. Yet coach Mark Whipple clearly favors Ford, who must be smarter in his reads beginning Saturday.

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One bright spot in the Georgia Southern loss was the continued excellence of receiver Andy Isabella, who nabbed a career-high nine receptions and racked up 95 yards.

If Ford hopes to put the last two weeks behind him, he’ll need to find a balance between keying in on his top target and spreading the ball around to dissuade secondaries from double-covering Isabella.

Can the defense overcome injuries?

Some have harped on the offensive miscues against Georgia Southern, but it was the defense that was truly diced. Whipple shuttled senior safety Tyler Hayes to outside linebacker, and the Eagles ran wild.

Three Georgia Southern running backs broke the 80-yard barrier, and senior Wesley Fields racked up 141 yards, getting nearly 7 yards per carry. Hayes acclimated admirably, collecting five tackles, but the move forced freshman safety Joseph Norwood into action, and UMass paid the price.

The UMass secondary didn’t have an answer for Georgia Southern’s play-action sets, Whipple acknowledged after the game. The Eagles’ fearsome run game led his players to overpursue whenever quarterback Shai Werts faked a handoff. This opened passing lanes downfield, and Werts feasted, averaging more than 17 yards per completion.

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UMass desperately needs injured cornerbacks Bakhari Goodson and Xavier Steele to return after they missed last week’s action, as FIU has posted 28 points in each of its first two contests. Goodson and Steele are considered week-to-week.

Will blocking continue to be an issue?

Whipple made it clear that he wasn’t pleased with how the men up front performed in Georgia. Key blocks were missed on two draw plays in third-and-long situations.

Adding to the strain was the absence of running back Bilal Ally, who flashed promise as a sophomore in 2017 but was in street clothes Saturday. He’s probable this week, and the UMass attack needs an injection of life.

It all starts up front. The Minutemen’s identity as a pass-first offense doesn’t mitigate the need for proper blocking; it enhances it. UMass has already been outgained by 281 yards on the ground, and whether in pass protection or the run game, it’s the offensive line that needs to pick up the slack.

Owen Pence can be reached at owen.pence@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @OwenPence.