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Johnston: It’s time for UMass football to take a leap forward By Thomas Johnston

Photos by Caroline O'Connor

The goal of the Massachusetts football team is simple: make it to its first bowl game since 1972.

Achieving that goal, however, isn’t as easy. In order to qualify for a bowl game, the Minutemen will have to win at least seven games, and even that won’t guarantee them a spot. To even get to seven wins, UMass (1-2) must win six of its final nine games.

The Minutemen have struggled in their first six seasons after moving from the Football Championship Subdivision to the Football Bowl Subdivision. Their best season came last year, where they finished a mere 4-8. UMass lost games it should have won — opening its season with defeats to Hawaii, Coastal Carolina and Old Dominion — and if it doesn’t want a repeat of last year, it will have to take care of business in winnable games.

That hasn’t totally been the case for the Minutemen this season. UMass opened with Duquesne, a FCS team, and looked like the far superior team, dominating from start to finish in a 63-15 thumping. It followed that up by taking a beating of their own, this at the hands of Boston College, one of the toughest opponents on the Minutemen’s schedule.

The third game against Georgia Southern would be one where UMass would show what it is made of. The Eagles were the first competitive test, and the Minutemen failed, falling 34-13. After beating Georgia Southern 58-20 a season ago, this looked to be one UMass had to have.

The expectations were higher for this year’s Minutemen squad, and the season still has a long way to go. One loss won’t define them, but the question must be asked whether UMass will ever be able to turn the corner in FBS football and be a competitive team on a week-to-week basis.

“They did a good job,” UMass coach Mark Whipple said of Georgia Southern. “They had a good plan and most importantly, their players executed.”

Execution will go a long way for the Minutemen this season — there’s talent scattered throughout the UMass roster, which has led to the lofty expectations. Andrew Ford, who threw for nearly 3,000 yards and 22 touchdowns a season ago, returns under center. Marquis Young, a fixture since his freshman year, mixed with Bilal Ally give UMass a dangerous running game and weapons like Andy Isabella, Sadiq Palmer, Jacoby Herring and Brennon Dingle give Ford weapons on the outside.

Bryton Barr returns for his final year of eligibility to captain the UMass defense, which features a strong secondary led by Lee Moses, Isaiah Rodgers, Bakhari Goodson and Connecticut transfer Brice McAllister. Defensive coordinator Ed Pinkham returns for his second season with the Minutemen, and the players have had a second offseason to get the system down.

There’s talent all over the UMass roster, now it has to come together and produce on the field. This year’s schedule has UMass facing off with some familiar opponents, taking on Florida International, Ohio, Coastal Carolina and BYU, all of which it played a season ago. The Minutemen fell to FIU and Ohio in shootouts, lost a close one to Coastal and defeated the Cougars.

The remainer of the schedule is comprised of Charlotte, South Florida, UConn, Liberty and Georgia. The Bobcats and Eagles both opened their seasons 1-1, and will be competitive matchups for UMass. South Florida has opened the season with two wins, while UConn has struggled in the early part of the season, dropping its first two contests.

The Bulldogs, who fell to Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship game last year, are currently ranked No. 3 in the nation and may be one of the toughest opponents in program history.

There are a handful of winnable games on the schedule, and the Minutemen showed last year against Tennessee that when they come to play, they can put a scare into anyone, even an SEC opponent. But this team has also shown in recent years that they are very tough to get a grasp on.

“We weren’t as good as everyone thought we were last week,” UMass coach Mark Whipple said after the BC loss, “and we aren’t as bad as everyone thinks we are after today.”

With this being their seventh year back in the FBS, it is time for the Minutemen to show improvement. The talent is there; the schedule has its challenges, but there are games in which UMass should certainly be very competitive, if not the favorites to win.

Will they make it to a bowl game? It’s too early to tell, but they will need to play near lights out from this point forward. They can’t have losses like the one suffered to Georgia Southern if they want to have a shot at achieving their goal.

The Minutemen are looking for an improved season, but through three games, it looks like the same UMass of old.

Thomas Johnston can be reached at tjohnston@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @TJ__Johnston.

(All photos by photo editor Caroline O'Connor)

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