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UMass 36, URI 27

UMass has the finishing touch

By Jeff Wagenheim
Globe Correspondent / September 18, 2011

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AMHERST - The big stage is supposed to be all about the big plays, isn’t it?

The University of Rhode Island delivered them again and again last night, and despite producing little else, the Rams were in position in the fourth quarter to win a game in which they’d been thoroughly dominated.

That’s when the University of Massachusetts, which had been successfully grinding away all game, did something a little different: The Minutemen made a big play.

With URI trailing by a point and driving, cornerback Kirk Nelms stepped in front of a Steve Probst pass, made his second interception of the game, and returned it 80 yards for a touchdown that all but sewed up a 36-27 UMass victory before 11,167 at McGuirk Stadium.

It was the final on-campus home opener for the foreseeable future for the Minutemen, who next season will move up to the Football Bowl Subdivision as a member of the Mid-American Conference and play home games at Gillette Stadium.

Kellen Pagel made his first start at quarterback for UMass, and when the redshirt sophomore was handing the ball to Jonathan Hernandez (a career-high 167 yards, 2 TDs) or throwing it to Julian Talley (8 catches, 108 yards, TD), UMass was shining like a star in its second straight performance under the lights. But when Pagel was throwing to Dave Zocco, the Minutemen (2-0, 1-0 Colonial Athletic Association) were in danger of wilting.

Zocco, you see, plays for Rhode Island (0-2, 0-1). The ballhawk safety made a pair of interceptions to kill UMass drives during a first half in which the Rams produced but a single first down.

URI trailed at intermission by only 9-7, however, thanks in part to Zocco’s turnovers and tackles (seven in the half, eight for the game) and in part to one big play by Probst. After Zocco’s second pick gave the Rams the ball at their 27, then a penalty pushed them back 10 yards, Probst beat an all-out blitz with a floating pass that found Anthony Baskerville for an 83-yard touchdown and a 7-6 lead.

The Minutemen managed to grab back the lead on a 24-yard field goal by Brandon Levengood with 3:34 left in the half.

UMass maintained control in the third quarter, increasing the lead to 16-7 on a 15-yard run by Hernandez and then feeding the ball to the senior from Leominster again and again to protect the lead. “I’m a little bit banged-up,’’ he said following his 32-carry performance. “I’ll feel it in the morning. But I’m good.’’

The Rams weren’t done with their big-play offense though. Probst threw the third of his four TDs, a 39-yarder to Ty Bynum, to put URI ahead, 21-16, in the final minute of the third quarter.

After UMass reclaimed the lead on an 8-yard Pagel run, the Minutemen held and then drove again. But Talley fumbled, and big-play URI had another chance.

That was when big-play Nelms, making his first start, stepped into the spotlight. “It helped me out,’’ said an appreciative Talley, who on the next UMass possession put the game out of reach with a 22-yard TD catch.

UMass coach Kevin Morris couldn’t help but smile, not just at Nelms’s emergence but also at the performance of his quarterback. “He certainly had some mistakes,’’ the coach said of Pagel, “and I don’t just mean the interceptions. But he’ll get better the more he plays.’’

And the more he gets the ball to Jonathan Hernandez and Julian Talley.