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UMass 24, Holy Cross 16

UMass runs past HC

By Jeff Wagenheim
Globe Correspondent / September 2, 2011

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WORCESTER - Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

That should be the motto of the University of Massachusetts football team after the FBS-bound Minutemen were jolted into the present moment - also known as someone else’s momentous occasion - by ready-for-prime-time Holy Cross before finally shaking the Crusaders for a 24-16 victory last night in the first game played under the lights at 108-year-old Fitton Field.

Opening the season in a Big East stadium, then hosting a Big Ten team at a home field shared by the Patriots will have to wait. That’s for next year for the Minutemen. UMass turned the future into now by alternating a pair of young quarterbacks, redshirt freshman Brandon Hill and sophomore Kellen Pagel. Each had his moments, of promise and immaturity. Each also mastered a maneuver that UMass quarterbacks will be asked to perform a lot this season: hand off to Jonathan Hernandez.

The senior from Leominster rushed 29 times for 151 yards, 15 short of his career best. Forty of those yards - along with another 15 on a pass reception - came during a gritty fourth-quarter drive that all but sewed up the Minutemen’s ninth straight win in this series.

Trailing, 17-9, Holy Cross took over inside UMass territory thanks to a fumble on the first play of the final quarter. The Crusaders moved inside the 30 but the drive stalled and a field goal attempt sailed wide left.

That’s when Hernandez took over, piling up the yards inside and out as the clock ticked down. With 7:51 left, UMass made it 24-9 on Pagel’s 4-yard TD pass to Julian Talley.

That score proved essential after Holy Cross got a touchdown in the final minute on a 19-yard pass from Taggart (23 of 44, 246 yards) to Gerald Mistretta. But the clock ran out on the Crusaders, in great part because of Hernandez.

What did he think of his big rushing night?

“The linemen came out and had a great game,’’ he said. “Great blocking.’’

Whatever comfort zone either UMass quarterback found himself in came largely courtesy of Hernandez.

Hill, who red-shirted last season, started . . . shakily. After a three-and-out, he came back onto the field next time and settled down by turning to his security blanket.

Hernandez sliced through for gains of 5 and 17 yards on the first two plays, and suddenly Hill found himself with a little extra time in the pocket against a run-wary D. On the seventh play of the drive, Hill faked a handoff to Hernandez, then found him with a pass to put the ball at the Holy Cross 4. Two plays later, tight end Emile Igwenagu, lined up in the backfield, rumbled in from the 1.

Two possessions later, after Paul Tearson had nailed a 44-yard field goal for Holy Cross to make it 7-3, Pagel took the helm for UMass. The transfer from Bowling Green completed an 11-yard pass to Jesse Julmiste, then turned to Hernandez on four straight plays. Then Pagel hit Julmiste with a quick slant for a 10-yard TD.

Taggart brought Holy Cross back, and not just with his arm. He scrambled in for a score on fourth-and-goal from the 3-yard line midway through the second.

But the runner to remember on this night was Hernandez, who didn’t allow UMass to get ahead of itself.