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UMass 42, C. Conn 26

Big night for UMass

By Jeff Wagenheim
Globe Correspondent / October 9, 2011

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AMHERST - The Central Connecticut offense is built around several options: an inside handoff to one of its running backs, a toss wide to one of them, a keeper by its fleet-footed, tough quarterback, or a pass.

One option the Blue Devils might want to instill on defense and special teams: tackling.

The University of Massachusetts used several big plays to fend off the never-say-die visitors from the Northeast Conference for a 42-26 victory before 11,736 last night at McGuirk Stadium.

UMass (3-2) held two-touchdown leads on a couple of occasions, including midway through the third quarter. But Central Conn. (2-4), led by Gunnar Jespersen (152 yards and a TD passing, 93 and two TDs rushing), kept coming. The Blue Devils had a chance to tie in the fourth when Jespersen hit Raul DeBenendittis with a 4-yard scoring pass - his only completion on a 19-play, 69-yard drive that ate up half the quarter - to make it 28-26 with 8:46 left. But their 2-point conversion failed when linebacker Tyler Holmes (career-high 19 tackles) buried Chris Tolbert (65 yards, TD).

Then Jesse Julmiste gave UMass some breathing room, taking the ensuing kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown.

Having taken one 100 yards against BC two weeks ago, Julmiste, who also had a 31-yard gain on an end-around to set up a second-half touchdown, was thinking end zone as he awaited the kick. “Got to,’’ he said. “That’s the only way to make plays.’’

And right back on the field trotted the UMass defense, which had just played for more than seven minutes as Central Conn. drove. “We’re not complaining at all,’’ said cornerback Darren Thellen.

Thellen especially didn’t mind when, after an exchange of possessions and with Central Conn. again driving, Jespersen floated a pass in his direction. Thellen stepped in front of the receiver, made the interception, and ran it back 85 yards to cap the scoring.

In addition to the special teams and defensive scores, the Minutemen got an impact performance from tight end Emil Igwenagu, who set up the first UMass touchdown with a fourth-down reception, then scored one himself in the second quarter when he took a short pass from Brandon Hill and rumbled 58 yards to the end zone.

“Just like Jesse says,’’ said Igwenagu (four catches, 99 yards). “Always think score.’’

That was the longest completion of the night for Hill, who was starting for the first time since the opener, with Kellen Pagel recuperating from a head injury suffered during last week’s loss at Old Dominion. The redshirt freshman did nothing spectacularly, but he was a steadying influence right from the opening possession. Hill was 4 of 5 for 68 yards - including a 32-yard third-down connection with Igwenagu - to move the Minutemen into position for Brendon Levengood’s 20-yard field goal.

After Central Conn. answered with a touchdown, and the teams traded three-and-outs, UMass got a big play on its next snap as Julian Talley took an end-around 69 yards down the left sideline to the 15. Hill completed a 9-yard pass to Talley and, on fourth down, threw into the flat to Igwenagu for a first down at the 2. Jonathan Hernandez then churned into the end zone to put the Minutemen back into the lead.

Hernandez had just 75 yards on 20 carries. But 24 came on a run that gave UMass a 28-13 lead. Still, with Central Conn. keying on the senior, much was put on Hill’s shoulders. He was 10 of 18 for 169 yards, but the big number for him was a zero - as in, no turnovers.

“If you don’t give the ball up, you’ve got a shot to win,’’ said UMass coach Kevin Morris. “We’ve taken that shot away from ourselves in the past. Not tonight.’’