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UMass 30, URI 10

It’s all UMass from beginning

By Marty Dobrow
Globe Correspondent / September 20, 2009

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AMHERST -- The cliché may well be true: it’s not how you start, but how you finish that matters. But when you start as well as the University of Massachusetts did yesterday against Rhode Island, the finish is pretty much a foregone conclusion.

On a glittering September afternoon, the 2-1 Minutemen rode a scintillating first half to a 30-10 victory over the 1-1 Rams in the Colonial Athletic Association opener for both teams.

UMass started well in every respect. On the first play from scrimmage, Kyle Havens hit Victor Cruz for 24 yards. The drive culminated in a gorgeous 4-yard touchdown pass from Havens to Chris Zardas. When the first quarter was over, Havens was 9 of 10 for more than 100 yards, having completed passes to seven receivers. At halftime, UMass owned a 2-1 advantage in time of possession. Not surprisingly, by the time the Minutemen yielded the field to the school’s renowned marching band, UMass held a commanding 21-0 lead.

“We were in a rhythm,’’ said Havens, the junior college transfer who finished 22 of 30 for 329 yards and two touchdowns. “Once you get that rhythm going, it’s hard to stop something like that. We had a lot of big third-down plays. Receivers made some great catches. The O-line was just blocking right. Everything was going our way. Everything was just real in synch. That’s where we set the bar for the whole season.’’

The first drive set the tone as the passing of Havens and the rushing of senior tailback Tony Nelson (29 rushes for 158 yards and a touchdown) steadily moved the ball. On third and goal from the 4, Havens dropped back as defensive end Steve Weedon thundered into the backfield. Weedon grabbed Havens around the legs, but the quarterback fired the ball to a cutting Zardas for the score.

“You can’t ever give up on a play,’’ said Havens. “At the same time, you have to be smart and know when to take a sack. On that particular play, I felt like I backed up just enough to where the guy wasn’t going to be on my upper body at all. I feel that my arm is strong enough that I can zip that in there without my legs. You kind of have to have a feel for the situation and know what your team needs at the time.’’

Rhode Island, coming off a bye week after a season-opening win over Fordham, marched right back down field. Elusive quarterback Chris Paul-Etienne led URI down to the UMass 3, where the Rams faced third and goal. Paul-Etienne hung in and fired a pass into the back of the end zone where tight end David Wilson looked open. UMass linebacker Tyler Holmes leaped to tip the pass, and Kurt Filler snared the deflection for the interception.

UMass scored twice in the second quarter on a 5-yard pass to Cruz (96 receiving yards) and a 3-yard scamper by Nelson.

The 21-0 halftime lead was facilitated largely by the seamless execution on third down. The Minutemen converted all seven of their chances.

“You win the game on third down,’’ said Rhode Island coach Joe Trainer.

“We have a goal that we want to be over 50 percent if we want to be at the top of our league,’’ said UMass coach Kevin Morris.

That league is in a league of its own among the 110 teams that compete in the Football Championship Subdivision. The CAA entered play yesterday with five of the top seven teams in the national polls, including No. 1 Richmond and No. 2 Villanova. UMass is ranked 17th.

In the second half, Rhode Island showed some pluck. The Rams drew within 21-7 on a 68-yard fumble return by Jarrod Williams. After the teams exchanged field goals, the Rams seemed to seize momentum, driving deep into UMass territory early in the fourth quarter with the score 24-10.

Facing fourth and 2 from the 5, Paul-Etienne (20 of 39 with no touchdowns and one interception) rolled out, but lost control of the ball and had to fall on it. Another lost opportunity.

“The margin for error in this conference is so small, and it’s even smaller when you have to win on the road,’’ said Trainer.

Two more field goals by Armando Cuko (3 of 3 on the day) put the game away.

UMass closes out its three-game homestand Saturday with a nonconference game against Stony Brook. URI visits UConn.