FOXBOROUGH — On Friday, the final game of 2012 for UMass struck a string of bad notes: 28 unanswered second-half Central Michigan points, a friends-and-family crowd of 6,385 at Gillette Stadium, an interception of third-string quarterback Ian Shultis on the final offensive snap.
A 42-21 rout was hardly the way the Minutemen wanted to say goodbye to their seniors.
“To finish on a note like this, nobody likes losing the way we just lost and finishing the season with only one win,” said junior tight end Rob Blanchflower. “That’s not something we come to play football for. We don’t do that.”
One final loss underscored the degree of UMass’s trial. One year ago, UMass was a Championship Subdivision program.
Now, in the aftermath of a one-win season, the struggles of the 2012 Minutemen (1-11, 1-7 Mid-American Conference) prove that transitioning to Bowl Subdivision is not easy.
“Our guys have a ways to go to be truly competitive at the 1-A level,” acknowledged coach Charley Molnar. “It’s beyond the horizon right now. But it’s not so far away that we won’t see it happen. It’s going to happen. I’m impatient, but I understand process. The process has to play itself out.”
The transformation’s foundation is a strong recruiting class for 2013. Another factor is off-field development. Molnar noted that his young players are skilled. But they’re not as strong as their competition, which the Chippewas showed on Friday.
Zurlon Tipton repeatedly bulled through the UMass defense en route to 185 yards and three touchdowns, including a 61-yard sprint in the fourth quarter. Late in the game, gassed by Central Michigan’s brutish offense, the Minutemen couldn’t stave off the attack when they desperately needed stops.
“We’ve got a lot of good football players,” Molnar said. “We just don’t have a lot of strong football players. We just need more time in the weight room to help level the playing field to become a stronger football team. We can see in the MAC that just about every team, if they can grind you down, they will. We were ground down in a couple games.”
The defense cracked because the offense didn’t find the consistent rhythm a successful program must have. On Friday, for the first time, Molnar gave the keys to A.J. Doyle. For the previous 11 games, the Lakeville freshman had backed up Mike Wegzyn.
Doyle completed 30 of 45 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns. The 30 completions were a season best for UMass.
But Doyle also threw three interceptions, including a game-changing third-quarter pick.
The game was tied at 21. On second and 10 from the UMass 24, the Catholic Memorial graduate threw a pass that Jahleel Addae intercepted and returned 30 yards. On the next play, Tipton scored on a 9-yard run. The Chippewas grabbed a lead they never gave up.
“A real killer,” Molnar said. “He had an OK idea to throw the ball to who he did. There was coverage over the top, coverage coming from underneath. If he places the ball a little bit better, it’s a catch, a first down, and we keep the drive going. Unfortunately, the ball was just a little bit off and the ball got intercepted.”
Neither Doyle nor Wegzyn, a redshirt freshman, has gained the coaching staff’s full confidence. Molnar’s message to both quarterbacks has not wavered since summer camp: Be prepared to compete for the starting job for four years.
If Doyle and Wegzyn reduce their mistakes, they will have a dangerous weapon in Blanchflower next year. He caught a career-high 10 passes for 100 yards on Friday, becoming the first UMass tight end to submit a 100-yard receiving game since Kerry Taylor turned the trick with a 119-yard effort against McNeese State Nov. 28, 1998.
In the second quarter, Blanchflower pulled in an 8-yard touchdown reception.
“He’s become more and more of a dominant player as we’ve moved through the season,” Molnar said of the Leominster native.
As a senior, Blanchflower should be one of the team’s go-to players. But the Minutemen need more of everything, not just skill players like Blanchflower. They require more depth on the lines. They need a running back to replace senior Mike Cox, one that can keep defenses honest if their quarterbacks are sputtering. Their defense must post timely second-half stops to keep 21-14 leads from blowing up into 42-21 laughers.
“It’s going to take at least one more recruiting class, this one coming in,” Molnar said. “It’s going to take time in the weight room. It’s going to take patience. We’ve got to understand that at times, there’s going to be growing pains. We have to just keep forging forward and not take our sights off the plan.”
All that will take time. Even provided that, there is no guarantee UMass’s FBS transition will be successful. Outgoing seniors such as Perry McIntyre learned the hard way that the Colonial Athletic Association does not compare with the MAC.
“Being part of the first class to move up to the FBS level is definitely an honor,” said the linebacker. “We didn’t go through a lot of highs during the season. But we stuck together. I’m very proud of being part of the team.”