AMHERST – Christian Birt’s interception return for a touchdown against Michigan last week provided a highlight in a University of Massachusetts season off to a slow start.
But that play is not the reason coach Charley Molnar selected Birt as a captain for the Minutemen’s visit to Miami (Ohio) for their first Mid-American Conference game Saturday.
“I’ve made him game captain and it has nothing to do with the interception,” Molnar said. “It was in my mind before that and the reason for that is, as we’ve gone through the season and, especially with a little bit of a rocky start, I think Christian is kind of like our team.
“Christian’s had a resurgence. In his time here, at least in his time with me, he’s been knocked down, he’s been in the doghouse. And, not only has he climbed out, he’s made himself a leader of this team by his passion for the game and hard work in practice, and really just doing everything right. And I think that’s similar to our team – being resilient. You got knocked down, get back up.”
UMass has been outscored in its opening three games, 145-19. But Birt’s 32-yard return provided temporary optimism as the Minutemen pulled within 21-10 of Michigan in the second quarter of a 63-13 loss.
“That was awesome, it got the whole team fired up,” Birt recalled. “After that, it gave us a bit of confidence, it was great. That’s the plan – to try and be in position and be able to make plays. And when the ball comes your way you have to be able to capitalize on those opportunities.
“But a pick 6 every game is not very likely.”
Miami (1-2) is led by quarterback Zac Dysert, who has a 68.1 completion percentage and has thrown for 705 yards.
“For the most part, our offense kind of runs what they do,” Birt said. “So we’ve been practicing all summer and preseason with them and now, during season, we still run against our offense. We have an idea of what to expect, what type of routes they’re going to run, because of what our offense does.”
“We learned from our mistakes and we kind of put it all together and try to have one really good outcome.”
Birt is among the few opponents who was able to turn the tables on Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson.
“[The intended receiver] gave me a kind of fake inside and I didn’t bite on it and he turned back outside,” Birt said. “I was watching the quarterback and I saw Denard staring him down. And as soon as he did that I started to jump on it. And as soon as he threw the ball I was in position to make a play on it.”
After that, “it was a blur – all I saw was end zone.”
The Minutemen might not know how to win, yet. But they do have a sense of how to give tribute to even a minor success.
“It was great, tremendous,” Birt said. “Especially being at the Big House, that’s a memory I’m never going to forget.
“We were all celebrating in the end zone and the coaches were yelling, ‘Hey, we have to go out there and we have to do kickoff.’ And it took a little while to get out there because we were all celebrating. But we had to get it all back together and keep up the fight.”
The Minutemen have been absorbing some hard lessons. But adversity could help them prepare for upcoming opponents.
“Michigan is a great team, I don’t know if we’ll be facing anything like them again the rest of the year,” Birt said. “But we’re not taking any team lightly. We’re still preparing for them like they’re Michigan, or Alabama, or the best team in the country. We respect our opponents and we’ll be prepared – we don’t change the way we prepare.
“We just need to learn from our mistakes. We made a lot of mistakes, like not being in the right position, and the other team has capitalized on it. We’ve just got to take the negative and try to turn it into a positive in practice.”
Birt, who is from Laconia, N.H., could not have anticipated a Football Bowl Subdivision level of highs and lows when he enrolled at UMass four years ago.
“I had no idea (about the Minutemen entering into the FBS). I always knew there was talk and rumors about it, but I didn’t know I would be part of that transition. It’s great, it’s great for the program, it’s great for the school. Playing big-time ball now we get a lot more exposure, it helps guys get to the next level. There are more scouts at practice, things like that. We’re playing on TV more often. It’s great for everybody here.”
Frank Dell'Apa can be reached at email@example.com.