This week, the Minutemen of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst come calling, and we were lucky enough to get some time from Bob McGovern to talk about both the game and the Minutemen's rocky transition to FBS football. In addition to his duties with 247sports.com's UMass site, the Maroon Musket, Bob's a sportswriter for the Boston Herald and also contributes to ESPNBoston, so we definitely got our hands on an experienced brain to pick this week.
Jon: Bob, good to have the chance to talk with you. Before getting into the actual football talk, I want to get into the state of the program. The initial feeling when Massachusetts announced their move to FBS was that UMass wouldn't be horribly overmatched, but so far things have been pretty grim. How did the fanbase react to the initial decision to move the program to FBS and the MAC, and how do they feel about it now?
Bob: Most realistic fans knew that the initial few years would be a grind. I'm not sure they anticipated how difficult it would be, but generally they knew that things were going to be difficult. The program had fallen on hard times in the few years before the upgrade. Don Brown, now the defensive coordinator at Boston College, left and was replaced by Kevin Morris, his much-maligned offensive coordinator. Morris effectively drove the program into the ground, and many thought he was the shepherd charged with leading UMass football to its final resting place.
When the upgrade was announced, the program was teetering on disaster. Had UMass played the 2012 season in the FCS, it likely wouldn't have won more than three or four games. So, as you can imagine, going to the FBS and playing the likes of Michigan, Northern Illinois and Vanderbilt was a tall order. Combine that with the fact that the program was required to move 90 miles away from campus to play losing football at Gillette Stadium, and things got a little contentious among UMass supporters. The faculty senate took time to voice their disapproval, but they have no power here, so that story was basically a reporter at the Boston Globe and a reporter at CBS doing their profession wrong.
Flash forward to today, and things are still a bit uneasy. Last weekend's loss to Maine really upset a lot of people who saw it as a moment to show the program's improvement. What happened was, in the eyes of many, a disgrace. UMass historically owns Maine, so losing in a 24-14 game that wasn't even that close made many question whether the team was actually improving, whether it was under the right leadership and whether it was worth the millions of dollars being sunk into it.
Things will change next year when the team returns home to McGuirk Alumni Stadium, which is being touched up with a new press box and endzone facility. Whether the team improves is anyone's guess, but head coach Charley Molnar likely has to make things happen quickly. Alumni are starting to sour on his leadership.
Jon: Because McGuirk Alumni Stadium wasn't suitable yet for the move to FBS, the Minutemen have had to play their home games in Foxboro at Gillette Stadium. Now, my kids actually grew up in Amherst, so I'm not at all unfamiliar with how inconvenient a trip that really is, at least for the students and staff. I know McGuirk's being renovated and the Minutemen will return to McGuirk for a few games in 2014, but not all. How's this arrangement working out, and what's the long-term plan?
Bob: UMass will play at McGuirk for three games in 2014. It will most likely be for a mid-week MAC game, Homecoming and one other matchup. I think that will work out well for the program. It will re-engage students and locals who may have felt abandoned by the move to Gillette. Whether or not that continues into the future is still up in the air, but if I were a betting man, I'd say this is how things will go.
The Gillette experiment hasn't yet worked because the team: 1) hasn't brought in a real marquee opponent, and 2) hasn't been even remotely good. The best draw so far has been Indiana, which doesn't exactly move the needle anywhere - including Indiana. Next year Boston College and Colorado come to Gillette, and I think that's when the crowds will show up. The Eagles will bring their fans, which typically fuels UMass fans. I'm guessing more than 30,000 show up for that game. Colorado will probably have a smaller crowd, but there is still some residual interest in the Buffs after their prowess in the 90s.
The future isn't exactly set in stone, but this is how I see it. Three games at McGuirk, all MAC teams, and each game is an event. The other three games will be at Gillette, and if the two sides can come to a long-term agreement, they will go out and get big-name opponents who want to expand their brand on the East Coast.
Jon: Moving on to actual football matters now... tell us a little about Charlie Molnar. What sort of program does he run, and what sort of tendencies should we be keeping an eye on?
Bob: Molnar is a career assistant but has worked with some great coaches in his day. Most notably, he worked under Brian Kelly as his offensive coordinator at Notre Dame. UMass is his first head coaching gig, so I think we're all learning what type of program he runs and whether it's sustainable.
He likes to run a no-huddle spread attack, which is supposed to keep teams on their heels. So far, the spread hasn't come close to working. Many, including myself, believe that it's because of the DNA of UMass football - run first behind big offensive linemen. Maybe the system will work after a few years, but right now things are looking really sloppy, and every opponent is winning the time of possession battle handily.
With recruiting, Molnar is really solid. He has consistently brought in high-end talent, and many are waiting for things to click. The 2013 class was the highest rated in school history, and many are waiting for them to start getting reps.
Jon: What sort of formations and packages can we expect to see from the Minutemen on Saturday, and who will be the keys to executing them?
Bob: Again, UMass runs the spread pretty exclusively and will, from time-to-time, jump into a Pistol formation to get the run game going. They run a lot of hitch and corner routes, but so far only sophomore wideout Tajae Sharpe seems to know his assignments. UMass also relies on the tight end, but team captain Rob Blanchflower has been out with an undisclosed injury, and Ricardo Miller - a grad student transfer from Michigan - has been banged up as well. If the tight ends are healthy, UMass can move the ball in small chunks.
Don't expect to see much up-the-gut running. Redshirt freshman Stacey Bedell is a talented back, but he rarely gets the chance to showcase his abilities. UMass runs a lot of delays, which only worked a few times last year, and that was when Mike Cox - the New York Giants' seventh-round pick - was manning the backfield.
The question of the week is: Who's starting at quarterback? Molnar has praised Mike Wegzyn all offseason, and did everything but make him the face of the program. Then, at halftime against Maine, he pulled the redshirt sophomore in favor of A.J. Doyle, a local kid who has been pushing for the No. 1 spot. Neither did particularly well, so it will be interesting to see who Molnar goes with against the Wildcats.
Wegzyn has a bigger arm, but Doyle is a little more athletic. To be honest, it's still hard to get a read on either.
Jon: Obviously the answer to the question "what's gone wrong this year?" starts with "Maine", although in fairness they're only a couple of years removed from being conference-mates so that game was always going to be tougher than a typical FBS-FCS matchup. That said, what has broken down so far this year, and conversely, what have you seen that gives cause for optimism?
Bob: I mentioned it a bit above, but I will go into more detail: UMass has departed from its identity. The Minutemen used to run over the Black Bears and control the time of possession. They would line up in a pro style set and basically just out-muscle whatever Maine brought to the table. Heading into last Saturday's game, that looked like a possibility. UMass is much bigger than Maine and has much more depth. However, instead of fighting at the point of attack, UMass tried to get cute and played right into Maine's hands. I'm sure Maine coach Jack Cosgrove was thinking, "Who is this, and what did they do with UMass?"
Another problem is on the defensive line. Inexplicably, UMass has switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4 and has paid the price. Both Wisconsin (expected) and Maine (unexpected) have run all over the Minutemen. It's hard to blame UMass' undersized defensive line (ex. Galen Clemons, UMass' nose tackle, is about 270) because they aren't putting themselves in this position. This one falls on the coaches.
As far as optimism, there is a ton to like in the 2012 and 2013 classes. In my 10-plus years of watching UMass football, these are the best freshmen I have ever seen. There are guys who right now are bigger and stronger than seniors. The future of the linebacking corps is in good hands, and the next generation of offensive linemen are going to be fun to watch.
Jon: Turning to your thoughts on Kansas State: how do you think Molnar will prepare for K-State's offense, and do you think there's anything he can exploit on either side of the ball?
Bob: The fact that Kansas State runs a dual-quarterback system in which one runs probably scares the heck out of UMass coaches. The Minutemen have systematically fallen on their face every single time a team brings forward a scrambler, and it looks like K-State has just that. Add that to the fact that the Wildcats have a veteran offensive line, and UMass is probably in for a long day.
My understanding is that KSU's defensive line lacks experience. If that's the case, my guess is that UMass can eat some yards on the ground if it decides to go that route. UMass' offensive line is big and can move vertically, so if the coaches recognize and use that, the Minutemen could frustrate the Wildcats a bit.
Jon: Finally, as is customary in these exchanges... got a prediction?
Bob: UMass is down right now, and after North Dakota State I doubt the Wildcats are overlooking anyone. This one should be a walk-through for K-State:
Kansas State: 41
Jon: Many thanks to Bob for taking the time to answer our questions. On Thursday, the tables turn, and we'll get out a link to that interview when the time comes.