UMass heads to Beaver Stadium this Saturday for the first ever meeting between these two teams, so we've reached out to Max Moore of Hustle Belt for some insight on the inner workings of this first-time opponent. While you're on Hustle Belt, check out my answers to Brandon's questions, including my prediction for the game.
Black Shoe Diaries: Our old track-star friend Alex Kenney transferred to UMass a couple years ago. How's he doing?
Hustle Belt: Kenney has been a nice addition to the team and brings with him the experience of playing at a big time college football program, which is invaluable to a program still getting familiar to life in the FBS. On the field he's lined up at wideout and has shared kickoff return duties. He hasn't produced much yet with only one catch but it's still early in the season.
BSD: UMass led Vanderbilt for most of the game last week, before crumbling late. How big would that win have been for your program?
HB: What crumble? Oh you mean where UMass was outscored 14-0 in the fourth quarter and missed a 22 yard field goal to send the game into overtime? Is that the crumble you are referring to because I've actually blocked that entire quarter from my memory but thanks for bringing this up. Words cannot describe how big of a win it would have been for this young program. Beating an SEC team, no matter how bad they may be, is an incredible accomplishment for a school who has been 2-22 over the last two campaigns. That win would have really kicked off the Mark Whipple era and shown to the football world that UMass can in fact sit at the grown-ups table. The good news is that we get another chance to get this type of win against you guys on Saturday and continue to MAC dominance over the B1G.
BSD: UMass has been, if not the worst team in the country since joining the FBS, at least in the bottom 5. What will it take for Mark Whipple to work his way out of the cellar? At this point, is there any regret that UMass went up a level to be uncompetitive rather than remain as a good 1-AA team?
HB: A lot of people have asked and wondered if UMass made a mistake moving up to the FBS (probably Boston College trolls). I think it would be nearsighted and to be blunt, stupid to view this move as a mistake. UMass is the flagship state university of Massachusetts with more than enough resources to make this work and most flagship universities have a FBS football program. Being a good 1-AA team is nice and all but at the end of the day that doesn't get you national exposure. Fans and the media just need to be patient and let UMass continue to grow. People forget that UMass is still playing with a lot of 1-AA caliber players who moved up with the team.
For Whipple to make UMass into a respectable program it all falls to one thing. Recruiting. We know Whipple can coach the X's and O's as he's won a 1-AA championship with UMass in 1998 and was the QB coach with the Steelers during their 2006 Super Bowl win. UMass' biggest problem hasn't been offensive schemes or even coaching. It's been that they simply don't have the depth of talent to compete with FBS schools. Whipple has already shown signs of being able to land good recruits with JUCO transfer Jean Siftin, who also held offers from USC and Oklahoma. If Whipple can continue to build his recruiting base the product on the field should improve.
BSD: What needs to go right for UMass to stick around, if not pull off the upset?
HB: Blake Frohnapfel will have to take more chances down the field. He only had 205 yards against Vanderbilt and played very conservative in the 2nd half with only 5 completions for 79 yards. With UMass' running game banged up, the passing game will need to make big plays down the field. Defensively UMass has been pretty poor against the run giving up 218 yards per game. That has allowed teams to determine the tempo of the game and control time of possession.Getting pressure on the QB would be nice too as the defense has only amassed 3 sacks all season. Also another fake punt for a touchdown would help too.
BSD: What players, on both sides of the field, should Penn State fans be on the lookout for?
HB: On the offensive side Tajae Sharpe is UMass' top offensive threat and leads the team in both catches and receiving yards by a large margin. He has the size and speed to stretch the field, but also has great hands and technique to get separation and make tough catches anywhere on the field. Sharpe is by far UMass' best pro prospect. Another guy to look out for is the big tight-end Jean Sifrin. His 6-7 frame makes him a red-zone nightmare for defenses and gives Frohnapfel a nice safety blanket. Also Rodney Mills who started at fullback against BC but plays all over the field leads the Minutemen with 3 receiving touchdowns.
The linebacking group is the strength of this defense with 5th year senior Stanley Andre as its heart and soul. He's a three year starter and is key to leading this defense which has a lot of younger talent. Fellow inside linebacker Jovan Santos-Knox leads the team with 42 tackles and outside backer Kessan Messiah provides a serious pass rush off the edge. On the secondary, two names you will hear a lot is Randall Jette and Joe Colton. Jette has emerged as UMass' top cover corner while Colton likes to get his nose dirty in the running game as he usually is lined up in the box in run support.
BSD: How do you see this one shaping up?
HB: As promising as the Minutemen have looked against Vanderbilt and Colorado, those were really poor P5 teams. Penn State is in a whole different class and this one could get ugly. If Penn State can get the running game going, which shouldn't be a problem at all, that will open up Hackenberg and the passing attack to really do damage. As of Wednesday the line is Penn State by 26.5 and I would probably take the over with the final score being in the ballpark of 35-7.