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August 1, 2013

Opponent Breakdown: UMass







As the 2013 season approaches, BroncoBlitz.com will break down each opponent, in an order of what we feel will be the most anticipated games. We've determined that the 11th most anticipated matchup comes late in October against second-year conference member UMass.

Massachusetts Minutemen

2012 in review

1-11 overall (1-7 MAC)

Postseason: None

Not much was expected of UMass in their inaugural season at the FBS level, and not much was delivered either. The lone bright spot for the Minutemen came in a 22-14 win at Akron, though they did surprise at times with their competitiveness (particularly in a 37-34 loss against then-unbeaten Ohio).

It figures to be a similarly uphill battle in year two for UMass, which boasts the third highest percentage of underclassmen in the nation, perhaps good news in the long term but difficult for 2013 in a conference returning a wealth of experienced talent.

Coaching


Charley Molnar returns for his second year at the helm of this program, a job that presumably is his for a few years as expectations are not for immediate wins in Amherst. Molnar was the offensive coordinator at Notre Dame for the two years prior to assuming the position, a lofty status even for a newly hired head coach in the Mid-American Conference.

Some of his most impressive work was done with Brian Kelly at Central Michigan and Cincinnati. With CMU in 2006, Molnar was the quarterbacks coach for MAC Freshman of the Year Dan LeFevour, and went on to direct a highly successful attack with the Bearcats as their passing game coordinator.

It will be a few years before we can judge Molnar's head coaching skills, but with the right personnel he can certainly move the ball on offense.

Passing Game

Key departures: WR Deion Walker (667 yd, 3 TD), WR Alan Williams (438 yd, 4 TD)

Key returnees: QB Mike Wegzyn (52.6%, 2835 yd, 6 TD/10 INT), TE Rob Blanchflower (464 yd, 2 TD)

This should be the calling card for Molnar, but Wegzyn and co. didn't exactly light the world on fire a year ago. The hope is that the redshirt sophomore, with a year of experience, will take some steps forward.


In fact, much of the reason for starting Wegzyn in the first place had to do with his youth-- as a redshirt freshman he'll have the opportunity to start as an upperclassman right when the Minutemen could be on the upswing.

The problem this year is that the Minutemen lack options in the receiving game. Not much comes back from a unit that was not all that productive to begin with-- although the inexperience at quarterback and lack of talent along the line didn't help them any.

UMass does return standout tight end Rob Blanchflower, who may be the best at his position in the conference and will likely lead the team in receiving. They did bring in three Florida recruits at the position, and at least one will likely have to contribute.

D.J. Woods, a speedster from Ft. Lauderdale, had offers from Indiana, Kentucky and Toledo among others and is the best bet as a freshman to make an immediate impact.

Running game

Key departures: Michael Cox (715 yd, 3.6 ypc, 5 TD)

The news isn't too much better on this front for the Minutemen, who averaged 2.6 yards per attempt behind an offensive line that might have been the least FBS-ready unit on the team.

It's hard to say what Cox would have been capable of with a competent line blocking for him, but it doesn't matter now as he's gone. Jordan Broadnax (124 yards, 1 TD) is likely to be the top option this fall, but it's an open competition. Broadnax picked up just 20 yards on six carries in the UMass spring game, though he did have a 98 yard touchdown on a kick return.

The offensive line is sure to be a problem again. Molnar knows there's a problem-- just look at the 2013 signing class for proof, as the 22 man class included seven offensive line prospects.


Unfortunately for the Minutemen, even though many of the true freshmen have adequate size, offensive line is not generally a position at which true freshmen can play, at least not with great success. UMass may attempt to plug some newcomers in-- possibly junior college transfer Josh Bruns-- but this is not likely to be a strong aspect of the UMass team.

Run Defense

The whole defense for UMass had its difficulties last year. It's hard to say whether the front or secondary struggled more. The problem is evident: Just as the Minutemen struggled in the trenches on the offensive side, the defensive line is not of FBS size yet.

Kevin Byrne and Robert Kitching man the inside and stand at 290 and 300 pounds respectively, but there is little to no depth at the position that probably needs it most.

The Minutemen also lose leading tackler Perry McIntyre from last year's linebacking corps, although overall the unit (along with the line) returns most of its contributors, many of whom are still just sophomores and juniors.

Whether this is good or not remains to be seen. With experience should come improvement, but the fact is that this team needs an injection of talent via recruiting and possibly transfers, as the current group is still primarily held over from the FCS days (and this wasn't a great FCS team when it made the jump).

Pass Defense

We are beginning to sound like a broken record, but this is not a great group for UMass heading into 2013. After giving up 8.0 yards per attempt to opposing passers in 2012, the secondary brings back most of its talent.

Khary Bailey-Smith, a true sophomore, is probably the most talented player on the back end, and possibly the entire defense. He took his lumps as a freshman, but showed glimpses of big-time playmaking ability with 45 tackles, two interceptions, a fumble forced and two fumble recoveries.

Starting safety Darren Thellen is gone to graduation after leading the Minutemen with three interceptions (an area that was actually not bad as UMass picked off 13 passes for the season).

Overall, this is the unit perhaps most poised to take a big step forward, but look for the likely lack of a pass rush to limit the productivity of a still-young secondary.

Special Teams

The specialists all return after putting together a pretty reliable season, a bright spot in an otherwise forgettable campaign.

Kicking duties are split between Blake Lucas, a freshman, and strong-legged Brandon Levengood, a rising senior. Lucas banged through seven of his eight field goals, while Levengood hit on three of five tries for a solid 10-for-13 as a team.

Senior punter Colter Johnson returns after leading the entire conference with a 43.6 yard average on his boots in 2012. The punt coverage team was somewhat lacking, giving up 13.8 yards per return and three scores, but if that can be cleaned up, this shouldn't be a bad area.

Trey Dudley-Giles figures to keep his punt returning role, having averaged 8.0 yards per return in his first season. Jordan Broadnax also returns to return kicks, and had a solid 21.2 yard average a year ago.

The kickoff game is a bright spot for the Minutemen as Levengood put over 25% of his kicks into the end zone for touchbacks and even when he doesn't, the Minutemen were tops in the conference with their opponents' 18.9 yard return average.

Overall Outlook

WMU gets UMass on Oct. 26, a time that they'll desperately need a breather after running through a brutal gauntlet of a schedule up to that point. It's hard to predict where the Broncos' minds will be at this point of the season, as they could conceivably be anywhere from 1-7 to 6-2 at this point (as unlikely as either of those extremes are, there are a lot of toss-up games).

This game, though it is a long road trip, should not be anything but a win for WMU this year. UMass can be expected to take a small step forward this year, but with the schedule they have, it's hard to see more than a win or two.

Kudos to the athletic department in Amherst for assembling a schedule that includes a home game with an SEC team (Vanderbilt) in only their second season in FBS, but the Minutemen are not shying away from competition and that is likely to show again in the record. Expect in the neighborhood of 2-10.

Bold Prediction

It's way too early to even begin to predict specific results for games, but BroncoBlitz.com will, almost as ridiculously, predict certain events in each game this fall.

As mentioned before, this game comes at a good time for Western Michigan. The flipside is, with a lot of big games on tap before October 26, and with a long road trip to play a team that will likely be 1-6 coming in, WMU could come out flat.

Motivation shouldn't be an issue with P.J. Fleck's energy, but don't expect a potentially banged-up WMU team to necessarily fire on all cylinders in Amherst. Don't be surprised if UMass has this game within 10 in the fourth quarter, though WMU is very unlikely to fall.

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