FOXBOROUGH — It was a 3-point game entering the fourth quarter.
After three sloppy, injury-riddled periods, UMass couldn’t have asked for much else heading into the final 15 minutes Saturday against Vanderbilt at Gillette Stadium.
Most sportsbooks had the Minutemen as underdogs by at least 30 points, but in the fourth quarter, there they were trailing just 10-7, a touchdown away from a late lead against the first Southeastern Conference team to face UMass on its own turf.
It would’ve been OK to dream just a little — about a shocking win over a team from the nation’s top conference, about an enormous selling point for coaches entering the homes of potential recruits or speaking to alumni at fancy functions.
But as the game wore on, UMass wore down. The injuries were too much, the opponent too overpowering. Ultimately, the Minutemen came up short, 24-7, and their record fell to 0-4.
“At the end of the day, we lost the football game, but I will say this: I think our team played very, very hard,” said coach Charley Molnar. “We played hard on offense, defense, kicking game. We just ran into a string of injuries today that were almost mind-boggling.”
While there was no official count, several UMass players were banged up and left the field, including starting quarterback A.J. Doyle, who twisted his left ankle on a scramble in the third quarter and missed one series.
“We knew they were going to be physical,” said Doyle, who completed 20 of 28 passes for 133 yards and one touchdown, a 4-yard toss to Tajae Sharpe with 13:11 in the second quarter. “I was prepared for it. Like any other game, I’m going to be sore afterwards from taking hits. That’s football.”
Most injuries involved ankles or feet — Doyle said he’ll be fine — but the injuries had an impact, Molnar said.
“Play selection on offense became quite challenging at times where we had certain plays designed for certain players, and they weren’t in the game,” he said.
Backup quarterback Mike Wegzyn replaced Doyle for one series and scrambled to move the chains, but the Minutemen failed to score in the second half — or keep Vanderbilt from scoring.
The Commodores (2-2) stretched their lead to 17-7 after quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels connected with receiver Jordan Matthews for an 11-yard touchdown with 13:44 left in the third quarter.
Carta-Samuels avoided a sack and was falling down when he threw the desperation pass to Matthews, who ran left to right across the field and hurdled a defender as he crossed the goal line.
Commodores running back Jerron Seymour punched in a 1-yard touchdown with 4:41 left in the fourth to put the game out of reach.
“Prettiest win I’ve seen because we got the W,” said Vanderbilt coach James Franklin.
Carta-Samuels completed 18 of 27 passes for 219 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception.
Most of Doyle’s completions were of the dink-and-dunk variety, though he nearly had four passes intercepted in the first half: two were dropped and two were overturned on replays.
“It seemed like every major play was reviewed for at least three quarters,” Molnar said. “It really hurt the momentum.”
Tight end Rob Blanchflower, the Minutemen’s leading returning receiver, returned from an undisclosed injury and played his first game this season, making seven catches for 42 yards.
Entering Saturday, UMass had allowed nearly 523 yards per game to its first three opponents. Vanderbilt had just 181 in the first half but gained 167 in the fourth quarter alone, when it wore down the Minutemen, and finished with 406. UMass had 248 total yards.
Now UMass has a bye week before opening play in the Mid-American Conference on Oct. 5 at Bowling Green.
“These first four games were really important,” Molnar said. “I wanted to win every single one of them. But at the end of the day, the MAC East is where it’s at for us, and now we begin that venture.”Baxter Holmes can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BaxterHolmes