Once in awhile I have a gut feeling about something, and no matter what statistics, history or conventional wisdom tell me, I just can’t shake it.
For some reason, this strange malady is telling me that this weekend’s game is going to be closer than it should be.
There is this odd ambience surrounding the UMass football team these days. It’s as if clinching a losing season last weekend struck a few of the guys like a late-night punch to the face after an already forgettable day at work. They are numb to the reality, but now they have to get up – bruised and battered – and fight again.
Vanderbilt is better than UMass, there is little doubt about that. They have SEC-quality receivers, the best running back in school history and a secondary that can frustrate even the best receiving corps. What they lack in size, they make up for in quickness and team speed. When they aren’t throwing a variety of confusing run packages at opposing defenses, the Commodores have no problem going for broke, pulling a rabbit out of the hat and unveiling a trick play.
They are constructed to beat opponents with more resources, talent and size. However, Vanderbilt’s game plan has also created deficiencies, and if UMass aggressively runs the ball, this could be interesting.
Against Miami (OH), UMass decided it was time to let Mike Cox be what he was supposed to be at Michigan – a powerful back with the ability to make defenders miss in the open field. He carried the ball 30 times for 188 yards and single-handedly kept the Minutemen alive. The next week against Ohio, the Minutemen put a scare in the Bobcats and gave Cox more than 20 touches.
Then the strategy curiously disappeared, and the Minuteman offense vanished.
During the past two games, Cox hasn’t surpassed the 15-touch mark, and UMass has looked woefully one-dimensional. Western Michigan’s firestorm defense never let Mike Wegzyn breathe, and Bowling Green didn’t even attempt to respect the Minuteman running game – mostly because it didn’t have to. Cornerbacks and safeties ignored the backfield, and without a tight end, linebackers enjoyed relaxing afternoons either watching Wegzyn’s eyes or puncturing the pass block.
With tight end Rob Blanchflower back in action, there is a sense that things might go back to normal – or at least go back to the way they were only a few short weeks ago. Blanchflower gives opposing defenses something else to watch for over the middle and in the flats. He also provides an adequate run blocker if and when UMass tries to run. If the Minutemen use Blanchflower’s return as an invitation to bring back the run game, the Commodores’ porous run defense may be thrown off its already teetering axis.
When I say run game, I mean it in the traditional sense: up-the-middle or off-tackle. The delays, sweeps and (dear lord) the handoff-to-fake-pass business has to take a back seat until UMass has the personel. To me, that style of running is “Cute Football.” To play with Vanderbilt, the Minutemen have to use power.
I foresee Charley Molnar and company reaching back and pulling out some of the pro-style plays that it used against the Redhawks. It worked then, and it worked against Ohio. If UMass can get the run going and keep Vanderbilt’s defense honest, I think the rested-and-improved Minuteman defense can do just enough to keep this close.
Then again, that’s just my gut talking.
- Vanderbilt: 31
- UMass: 24