AKRON, Ohio — Four interceptions, superb special teams play, and a final defensive stand lifted the University of Massachusetts to its first win of the 2012 season on Saturday, a 22-14 victory over Akron at InfoCision Stadium.
With 1:30 left in the game and Akron facing a fourth-and-2 at its 49-yard line, Ryan Delaire sacked Zips quarterback Dalton Williams, ending the game and earning first-year coach Charley Molnar a Gatorade bath.
The UMass sideline exploded as frustrating months of winless football had finally come to an end.
“It was a really, really exciting moment,’’ Molnar said. “Not only for me, but for the whole football team. The coaches on the phone went absolutely nuts. It’s been a long time. I’ve never been kissed by so many men before.’’
Last week, Molnar talked about the process UMass (1-9, 1-5) had to go through while adjusting to its first season in the Football Bowl Subdivision and Mid-American Conference. Saturday’s win was a big first step in the right direction.
“I used the analogy early in the week that we were just starting to crawl,’’ Molnar said. “It felt like maybe today we took our first step. We stood up, took a step, and it felt pretty darn good, so maybe we’ll take another step next week. They know what it feels like to win now. I can’t imagine them wanting to go back to that other feeling.’’
The Minutemen built their first lead since Sept. 29 against Ohio behind the play of a freshman defensive back Joe Colton. After a stellar game last week (10 tackles, forced fumble), Colton blocked a punt in the first quarter. Khary Bailey-Smith recovered it and returned the ball to Akron’s 3. The offense failed, but Blake Lucas hit a 23-yard field goal to put UMass up, 3-0.
Then came a string of interceptions throughout the second quarter. Randall Jette picked off Williams to set up a second Lucas field goal, from 26 yards.
Ed Saint-Vil and Bailey-Smith each intercepted passes and returned them to Akron’s 22. The first resulted in a picture-perfect, 24-yard touchdown from Mike Wegzyn (23 of 39, 266 yards) to Alan Williams (six catches, 86 yards). After a failed 2-point conversion, UMass led, 12-0. The latter interception led to Lucas’s third field goal, from 35 yards.
“They [the secondary] are a really, really confident group of guys and that confidence is starting to show,’’ Molnar said. “They go after the ball when the ball’s in the air. That’s the way we’ve played defense since we started practice in March.’’
The Zips scored a touchdown early in the third quarter to cut the lead to 15-7 after Jordan Broadnax fumbled near midfield. Colton then came through again, intercepting a pass and returning it to Akron’s 1. Wegzyn pushed the lead to 22-7 with a sneak.
“I look at him [Colton], and he looks like the kid down the street, the paper boy,’’ Molnar said. “But man oh man, when the ball’s in the air, he’s a heat-seeking missile. If he’s not gonna catch the ball, he’s looking to knock the daylights out of the guy who does.’’
Colton is still playing without a scholarship. After his interception, D’Metrius Williams and Darren Thellen stormed the sideline.
“[Thellen] said, ‘I’m gonna give you my scholarship.’ Williams runs up to me in front of all the coaches and said, ‘If this kid doesn’t get a scholarship, I don’t know what I’m going to do,’ ’’ Colton said. “I’m just happy to be a part of this . . . We got to the fourth quarter and were like, ‘This is ours. This is our game.’ ’’
The Zips’ comeback bid was made more difficult by UMass punter Colter Johnson, who twice pinned Akron on its 1 and put another punt on the 6.
“Colter Johnson has to be not only the best punter in the MAC, he’s got to be one of the best in the country,’’ Molnar said. “I say it over and over again, this guy is about as good as it gets.’’
He’s one of the reasons the game ball will be displayed in Molnar’s office come Monday.