UMass braces for a game in the Big House

UMass transfer Michael Cox spent four years at Michigan.
UMass transfer Michael Cox spent four years at Michigan.
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It won’t be Mike Wegzyn’s first time at the Big House. He knows what a venue with 100,000 people looks and feels like.

It won’t be his first time stepping on the field. He was a kid running around on the Michigan Stadium grass long after the place had emptied out.

Wegzyn, the University of Massachusetts freshman quarterback, grew up about 20 minutes from Ann Arbor, Mich., in a town called Northville, where he played high school football for three years before he moved to Tennessee for his senior season.

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His family grew up with the Wolverines. They were season ticket-holders.

Wegzyn can remember the Braylon Edwards years and Charles Woodson biting the rose stem in 1998.

But he will be in the Big House on different terms Saturday, when UMass faces 17th-ranked Michigan. He will be leading a team that is two games — and two losses — into its transition to Football Bowl Subdivision competition, taking its lumps with its lessons.

He has been there before, but not like this.

“It’s definitely going to be different walking out in this kind of atmosphere,” Wegzyn said, “being actually the one on the field.”

It’s the game he circled on the calendar before the season. He will have family there and friends. And friends of friends. And Facebook friends.

“I’m going to know about half the stadium,” he said. “I know a bunch of kids that go to Michigan. Maybe we’ll get some maroon colors in the stands, too, little spots here and there.”

After losing their first two games by a combined 76 points, the Minutemen will go to Michigan as better than 40-point underdogs, knowing the environment will be hostile. And for a team with 41 freshmen, it will be like nothing most of them have ever seen.

“I want our players to see what a big-time program looks like, how the players act,” said UMass coach Charley Molnar. “How they respond on the field to different situations that come up. And I think, being there, it’s going to help our players realize that’s a measuring stick to get our program like Michigan’s.

“Michigan’s been doing it well over a hundred years at the big-time level. We’ve been doing it for two weeks. We’re not going to catch up overnight. We’re not going to catch up in a year. But eventually our program is going to look more like Michigan than the 1-AA UMass. That’s our goal, that’s our vision, and that’s what’s going to happen.”

Michael Cox spent four seasons as a running back at Michigan. He played in just 15 games before transferring to UMass, where he’s now the leading rusher. He still has friends on the Wolverines roster. Still remembers some of the plays, even though he’s sure they’ve changed them by now.

Molnar tapped him as this week’s game-day captain. It was something he wanted to do from the time he recruited Cox. The situation is highly unusual — even awkward.

“I certainly have never seen it,” Molnar said, “Obviously in the NFL that happens, but not in college football.”

Molnar sees it as incentive for Cox.

“It doesn’t matter if we were playing Michigan or Central Michigan; he would approach it the same way,” Molnar said. “I wanted to watch his leadership skill to make sure that he was everything I thought he would be, and he’s actually surpassed my expectations.”

As with all the games the Minutemen will play this season, this one is as much about the future as it is the present. When Molnar thinks of this game’s impact, it is in terms of this team and the one he’ll coach years down the road that he hopes will big-game-ready having played in it.

“Next season, the season after, when we’re bowl eligible, we’re going to start playing games that are really meaningful football games late in the season,” Molnar said. “For guys that have already played in front of 110,000 fans, going against the very best players in the United States, now when they go play a game that’s going to be critical to moving into first place in the MAC Eastern Division or perhaps playing in the conference championship game or a bowl game, these guys have already been there.

“They’re going to have already played in front of a huge crowd, loud noise, and great players. So it’s going to be easier for them the second, third, and fourth time they do it than obviously the first time.”

For a handful players, this is the second time around. It was only two years ago that the Minutemen went to Ann Arbor, did everything they could to turn the Big House on its head, but fell short, 42-37.

Darren Thellen was just a sophomore, but he started at safety and had eight tackles.

The stats don’t mean as much as the experience. The first thing Thellen noticed and the first thing he remembers to this day is the overwhelming mass of bodies in the stands — the feeling of being at the epicenter of 110,187 people.

“The place was filled,” he said. “I’ve never seen a stadium that packed.”

The noise was next. It was so loud, he was practically using sign language.

“You couldn’t hear anything on the field,” he said. “That’s probably the most difficult thing.”

He’s a senior now, a four-year starter and easily one of the Minutemen’s most experienced players.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen him get rattled or flustered,” Molnar said.

A large part of his job will be passing that kind of calm along to his teammates.

“I think for a young player it might be distracting, just shocking to see that many people at a game,” Thellen said. “You can’t let it get to you. You’ve got to tune all the noise out.

“My first time playing there, you’re just so excited and your emotions are raging. You’ve just got to settle down. So the best thing I can do for young players in an environment like the Big House is just to make sure that they settle down and don’t get too caught up in the hype and the fans.”