After playing nearly the entire regular season, the Massachusetts football team finds itself in a position where it can control its own fate. The Minutemen will look to make their case for a postseason berth with a win over conference-rival Rhode Island on the road this Saturday.
While UMass head coach Kevin Morris has preached a "game-to-game" philosophy during the season, he understands the playoff implications with this upcoming contest.
"We're talking openly about it," Morris said in his weekly teleconference. "We're going in with the philosophy that this is a play-in game. I mean, if we want to get in the playoffs and be considered for an invitation, we need to win this football game, certainly."
Not only will the importance of the game affect the intensity on Saturday, but it's already affected the intensity of the practices this week.
"We're coming in with a playoff mentality and trying to get our practice to be of that caliber and put it right out there for the kids to jump on," Morris said.
The No. 19-ranked Minutemen (6-4, 4-3 Colonial Athletic Association) find themselves with their backs against the wall and in a four-way tie for third place in the CAA standings. After starting the year with a 4-1 record, including a competitive loss to the storied Michigan program, UMass has struggled since. Following their bye week in early October, the Minutemen have managed a 2-3 record, placing their once-likely prospects of making the postseason in jeopardy.
Nevertheless, Morris and the coaching staff don't want to put pressure on the players, but rather remind them that they're in position to accomplish a goal.
"We want to treat it as, 'Hey, let's get excited,'" Morris said. "'This is why we're here, we have an opportunity at the end of the year to make the playoffs and that's our goal. Here we are with that opportunity, so let's take advantage of it."
Looking to play spoiler against UMass will be conference-foe URI (4-6, 3-4 CAA). The matchup will be the 85th meeting between the two teams, marking the most for the Minutemen against any opponent in program history.
Along with UMass, which dropped its last contest to No. 1 Delaware, the Rams are coming off a loss at Richmond.
Despite holding the Spiders to three scores for the game and forcing five turnovers, URI couldn't generate enough offense and fell, 15-6. Quarterback Steve Probst led the Rams with 195 yards in the air and 97 yards on the ground, while completing passes to five different receivers.
URI entered the fourth quarter with a 6-3 lead, but was soon on the losing end when Richmond scored on a 77-yard touchdown pass from quarterback John Laub to Donte Boston to take the lead.
Even though the Rams are coming off a defeat and hold a losing record, Morris isn't taking them lightly.
"Rhode Island has played very inspired, very aggressive football," Morris said. "Every game is a tight game, they seem to play everybody well. They've had overtime games, they've proved all year long and they're coming out and still playing extremely tough."
In the all-time series between UMass and URI, the Minutemen hold a 47-35-2 lead, including winning 19 of the last 24 meetings.
Last season, UMass continued its success against the Rams at home with a 30-10 victory. Quarterback Kyle Havens had one his best games of the season, completing 22-of-30 passes for 329 yards and two touchdowns. In the ground game, tailback Tony Nelson ran 29 times for a score and 158 yards, marking his ninth career 100-yard game.
The Minutemen will look for a similar result this weekend when the game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. at Meade Stadium in Kingston, R.I.
By: Dan Gigliotti | November 17, 2010 |
Tailback John Griffin regained the running form that earned him All-Conference First Team honors in the preseason in the past two weeks. Griffin rushed for 145 yards on 12 carries on Saturday against Delaware, including a 59-yard scamper, his longest run of the season.
"He had his highlight day in terms of yards per carry and overall yards," Minutemen coach Kevin Morris said in a teleconference on Monday. "He's explosive, he can do those things. He's had a great year for us overall."
In his previous game, Griffin ran for 81 yards on 18 carries against Maine on Nov. 6, and now averages 81.6 yards per game this season.
After rushing for 500 yards in his first five games, Griffin saw a slip in his performance following the Minutemen bye week, rushing for a combined nine yards on nine carries over a two game stretch.
On Oct. 23 against New Hampshire, Griffin's rushing total was in the negatives (seven carries, minus-one yard) and the following week against James Madison he ran for 10 yards on a season-low two carries.
Morris has made a concerted effort all season to distribute carries evenly amongst his "two Jon's" in the backfield, including junior Jonathon Hernandez (81.4 yards per game). They rank second and third, respectively, in the Colonial Athletic Association in yards per game, with Hernandez getting the bulk of the carries (193 attempts, 4.2 per carry) and Griffin averaging one more yard per carry (158 attempts, 5.2 per carry).
Morris believes that Griffin's slip in production was simply a matter of circumstance and hopes that the esteemed back will retain his form this weekend.
"We talked about the one game at JMU where he didn't get the carries and that's just the way that game had worked out," Morris said. "He has certainly gotten back in the mix in the last two games and run very hard and very well. John's going to continue to be an All-Conference back and we're going to need him this week against Rhode Island."
Violette gains attention
Special teams has been the focus of attention in many ways for Morris and the Minutemen all season. Most recently, the erratic play of the kicking unit has been of particular concern.
Sophomore Caleb Violette missed three field goals on Saturday against Delaware (41, 23, 25 yards) and his lack of consistency has been costly in the second half of the season.
After the game, Morris spoke about the possibility of replacing Violette in the field goal unit.
"You've got to look at everything," Morris said when asked whether he would seek an alternative player to assume the field goal kicking duties. "We had one problem previous to this where we had an issue on field goal, but this was new to us in terms of lack of production."
Violette's miscues against the Blue Hens came at critical junctures of the game when the Minutemen were attempting to establish a lead.
The first miss came on the Minutemen's opening possession. After driving 13 plays for 81 yards in over seven minutes on its second possession, Violette missed another field goal with UMass down 7-0. His final miss came in the second quarter with a chance to tie the score.
Against the Wildcats, Violette missed two first half field goals (45, 40), one coming just before halftime to give UMass its first points going into the locker room.
Violette, also the punter, earned CAA Special Teams Player of the Week honors the following week in his home state of Virginia, with field goals of 33 and 25 yards and two punts of over 50 yards against the Dukes.
Violette began the season with a stellar conversion rate on field-goal attempts, going 6-for-6 in the first five games, one of only a handful of kickers in the nation to have a perfect field goal percentage at that point in the season.
He has yet to make a field goal of over 40 yards this season (0-4) and is 9-for-15 (60 percent) total on the season.
The kick return game is a forte of the UMass special teams, ranking fourth in the nation in punt return average (16.93 yards per return).
The insertion of Anthony Nelson into the return game is paying dividends. His two punt returns were for a combined 104 yards.
The most likely replacement for Violette is redshirt freshman place-kicker Brian Levengood who currently plays on kickoffs.
Probst proves threatening
The Rhode Island offense is amongst the least productive in the conference (seventh in total offense, seventh in passing yards per game), yet the dual-talents of its quarterback poses a threat for Morris and company.
Junior Steve Probst is the leading rusher on the Rams team and the only signal-caller in the top 10 in rushing in the conference (53.3 yards per game).
After Hofstra dropped its football program last season, the junior transferred to Rhode Island where he is now third in the CAA in total offense (220.9 yards per game) behind UMass quarterback Kyle Havens (227.5).
Probst impressed with his play in a 52-38 Hofstra win last season when they hosted the Minutemen. Probst was involved in two plays in that game, a seven-yard run and a 16-yard pass that both resulted in touchdowns.
Morris feels his role under center is what drives the Rhode Island offense and that it will be key in stopping him on Saturday.
"Probst is really playing good football," Morris said. "We liked him in the past; he played against us at Hofstra last year. He has really come into his own and taken that team on his back. That's why they're playing well because he's not afraid to take the ball, put it in his hands and make things happen."
As Morris is familiar with Probst's game, so too should his staff be familiar with preparing a defense for players with his skill-set.
In its game against Michigan on Sept. 11, UMass faced one of the top rushing quarterbacks in the country in Denard Robinson. The Minutemen defense held Robinson to 104 yards rushing, after he set the school record for rushing yards in a game in back-to-back games prior (197, 258).
In that game, however, running back Michael Shaw ran for a career-high 126 yards on 12 carries.
The Minutemen will scheme to shut down all facets of the Ram running game, which averages just under 142 yards per game.