AMHERST — If there’s one thing the 0-8 Minutemen would like on Saturday — other than a win, of course — it’s a first-half visit to the end zone.
In its last two games, UMass (0-8, 0-4 Mid-American Conference) hasn’t scored in the first half. It is probably no coincidence that it was outscored in those two games, 73-7. The Minutemen’s last first-half touchdown came Oct. 6 during a 52-14 loss to Western Michigan.
“Once we get in the end zone, everybody’s confidence increases exponentially,” coach Charley Molnar said. “It’s hard to be confident, to come out as well as the defense has played in some games in the first half, and you’ve got a goose egg on the scoreboard. You’re talking about coming back and winning the game. But everybody is probably wondering inside, ‘Is the offense going to get in the end zone?’ It’s been hard duty for the offense to do that.”
The last two games, the UMass defense has blunted opposing attacks in the first half. On Oct. 20 at Gillette Stadium, UMass trailed Bowling Green at halftime, 7-0. Last Saturday on the road, for most of the first half, the Minutemen limited Vanderbilt to a lone touchdown. The Commodores scored two touchdowns in a 55-second span late in the second quarter.
Freshman linebacker Kassan Messiah has been at the head of UMass’s defensive charge. In the last two games, Messiah has recorded 25 tackles.
“I think the defense has found its stride,” Molnar said. “They’ve got the right guys in the right places. The young guys on defense seemed to have matured quickly. I think we’ve found some real gems in some of the younger guys. They’ve been developing week in and week out. They’ve stayed the course.”
But all that first-half mileage has led to tire wear in the second half. Bowling Green held the ball for 17:29 in the first half. Vanderbilt’s first-half possession time was 16:00. In both games, quarterback Mike Wegzyn and the UMass offense never found a rhythm in the opening 30 minutes.
Upon each three-and-out misfire, the UMass defenders had to pull on their hard hats and trudge back onto the field.
“We just know that as a defense, when that happens, we have to carry the load,” said linebacker Perry McIntyre. “This is a team game. There are times when we’re struggling, the offense knows they have to step it up.”
In the second half, both opponents broke through against the winded UMass defense. Bowling Green scored two third-quarter TDs. Vanderbilt piled up 28 points in the third quarter.
Wegzyn hasn’t thrown for a touchdown in three games. Wegzyn’s best day came on Sept. 29 against Ohio, when the redshirt freshman went 27 of 51 for 373 yards and four touchdowns. A.J. Doyle has relieved Wegzyn the last three games.
“Our defense has been suffering because of our offense,” Molnar said. “They’ve gotten a little bit worn down because they’ve been out there so long. Also, they’re going, going, going and giving everything they’ve got. We haven’t been able to keep the wind in the defense’s sails.”
UMass is banking on a first-half offensive revival on Saturday against Northern Illinois. Lineman Nick Speller will return after missing three games because of academic reasons. Speller practiced on Wednesday at McGuirk Stadium.
“You get so used to coming down here at 1 o’clock every day. When you stop doing it, it feels weird,” Speller said. “It really feels awkward. I’m just happy I’ve got my normal routine back. I’m trying to finish this out strong.”
Speller could help give Wegzyn the protection he’ll need against Northern Illinois. The Huskies (8-1, 5-0) have rolled off eight straight wins after dropping their season opener to Iowa, 18-17. Part of Northern Illinois’s winning formula has been its defensive line.
“They’re so fast up front,” Molnar said. “They’re not as big as other defenses that we’ve faced in the Mid-American Conference. But they are by far the fastest. They’ve got some crazy hitters on defense. Guys that are very, very physical.”
For the second straight game, the Minutemen will look to a defensive lineman for offensive reinforcement. Freshman Al Leneus hadn’t played until last Saturday. Against Vanderbilt, the converted defensive lineman saw snaps at guard. Leneus’s pass-protection performance was good enough for the coaching staff to keep him at guard.
Leneus’s conversion was not expected. But a team seeking its first win is desperate for results. If they come with a defensive player switching to offense, that will be just fine with Molnar.