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UMass giving its level best

UMass coach Kevin Morris called BC “the strongest team we’ll play’’ this season. UMass coach Kevin Morris called BC “the strongest team we’ll play’’ this season. (File/Jessica Hill/Associated Press)
By Frank Dell’Apa
Globe Staff / September 23, 2011

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AMHERST - The days of the University of Massachusetts football team sneaking up on opponents are over. The Minutemen will be underdogs when they visit Boston College tomorrow but they will not be underestimated.

Part of the reason for the Eagles’ attentiveness will be UMass’s recent efforts against Navy, Kansas State, and Michigan. BC will also be motivated by its 0-3 record; UMass is 2-0.

“The whole thought of, hey, they’re overlooking an FCS opponent to get to the rest of their ACC games, that’s probably out the window right now,’’ said UMass coach Kevin Morris. “They’re like us, just worrying about their next game and it doesn’t matter who it is.

“They’re going to just keep trying to grind and get better and we’re going to do the same. We’ve just been fortunate to come away with two wins and they haven’t.’’

The Minutemen have not defeated BC in a road game since 1901.

But this is a new era for football at UMass, which will move up to the Bowl Subdivision next season and join the Mid-American Conference. Narrow defeats at Navy (21-20, in 2006), Kansas State (21-17, in 2009), and Michigan (42-37, in 2010) indicate UMass can compete at the next level.

“In the last two years, in particular those games against Kansas State and Michigan, we certainly had our chances in big-time atmospheres,’’ Morris said. “Our players haven’t played at Boston College but as a staff we have, and we know what to expect from Boston College football. We’ll be ready to go. On paper, they are our best opponent, the strongest team we’ll play.

“If you go by the Michigan, Kansas State, and Navy games, those are good indicators of where you are as a program. I think we’re a very competitive program but we still haven’t recruited a truly FBS recruiting class. We’re going to go out and play and compete with anybody we play against and our goal is to win the game.

“Our players are good players, don’t get me wrong. Guys have developed into NFL players, they’re doing well in the NFL. But to compete on a weekly basis in the FBS, you need to compete against the other FBS schools for the talent.’’

For some Minutemen, this will be their last chance to compete against a bigger opponent.

“Any time you get a chance to play on the big stage, you get excited,’’ receiver Julian Talley said. “Playing against Michigan last year, we competed and saw that we’re just as athletic. The only thing we don’t have is the depth, but we definitely feel that we can play at that level. So we definitely have the confidence, definitely have the swagger about ourselves that we can go in a come out with a ‘W.’ ’’

The Minutemen are still lamenting missed opportunities of the past: a 1-point loss at Navy, a touchdown called back on a controversial pass interference against Kansas State, a failed onside kick against Michigan.

The close-but-no-cigar finishes serve as inspiration.

“You go to Ann Arbor,’’ Talley said, “before 110,000, and you’re close to winning the game - Michigan is the winningest program in college football history. So, we definitely feel like we can do some good things. That game last year boosted confidence. We proved to ourselves we can play at that level.’’

UMass is a team in transition, a mix of proven performers and inexperienced quarterbacks, plus freshmen in key defensive roles.

Redshirt freshman Kirk Nelms had two interceptions in a 36-27 win over Rhode Island last weekend, returning one 80 yards for a touchdown.

“And he’s replacing, technically, another freshman,’’ Morris said of Nelms. “Both are only in their second year here. We have a sophomore quarterback starting and a redshirt freshman started the first game.

“I think the one thing, which is a plus and a minus, is that we’re talented but we’re young. We have quality seniors, and that’s really the foundation of the program, those older guys.’’

This will be the last senior group at UMass to play in the Colonial Athletic Association. Expectations will be raised for future classes.

“You always dream in high school of being a Heisman candidate and playing at the USCs, Texases, and Alabamas but it really doesn’t work out like that,’’ linebacker Tyler Holmes said. “But I’m definitely happy with my choice at UMass. UMass gave me a home and I’m very proud of that. There is tremendous talent here in the CAA.’’

Holmes has been a captain for two seasons.

“We, as a defense, try to take away what they do best,’’ Holmes said. “[The Eagles] like to run the rock. They have some great backs, so, hopefully we can slow them down and stop that and force them to pass. But, like I said, the quarterback’s a great athlete and he can throw it, too. So, we’ve got to be on our toes and ready to go for 60 minutes.

“We all know it’s a huge game and a huge challenge. We’re just working hard to get better and not being content on what we’ve done so far this season.’’

Said Talley: “As a team, we expect to win every game. We know we can go in and we can win this game. They are supposed to be bigger, stronger, and faster. But at the same time we’ve got guys who can play.

“Definitely, this is a statement game. This program is taking a big step next year, going into the MAC, and we definitely need the win to make a great statement for UMass and the program.’’

Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at f_dellapa@globe.com.