Thursday, August 10, 2006

Let's Talk About UMass

With all the hype surrounding the opener against ECU, the road trip out to Stanford, and the usual hoopla surrounding teams like Notre Dame, Air Force, and Army, one game has seemingly flown completely under the radar. Yes, I'm talking about the September 9th matchup with Massachusetts. While the Minute Men may be Navy's only Div-IAA foe this season, they certainly shouldn't be written off as an easy win. Joining me to discuss the outlook for UMASS in 2006 is Frank Smith, lead blogger over at the UMASS Football Fanzone.

Hi Frank, thanks for talking with me. I understand you actually served in the Navy?

First, greetings from UMass Football fans. All UMass fans wish to express their appreciation to the Navy Midshipmen for choosing a career in protecting our country. As an aside, I am a Navy Veteran. I spent a couple of years on a Forrest Sherman Class destroyer (Claude V. Ricketts DDG-5) back in the Vietnam era. Admiral Zumwalt’s son (the one who later died of Agent Orange exposure) was my Division Officer while on the Ricketts. The Navy is a small place.

Not too many Navy fans are familiar with Massachusetts football, so let's start with the basics. How does this team look for the 2006 campaign? What are the strengths and weaknesses of this ball club?

I believe 2006 will be a good one for UMass. We return 8 starers on Offense and 6 on defense. Our schedule is also favorable. Our strength is our defense. Our weakness is lack of depth at QB and DL.

Looking around several preseason publications, I've noticed that UMass is highly ranked amongst Div I-AA teams. After a 7-4 season in 2005, what are the expectations for UMass this year?

In an average of preseason polls, UMass is ranked #10. The UMass faithful hope to make the playoffs this year. As Navy fans know, making the I-AA playoffs is the most difficult task in college football. In I-A, 50+ teams are chosen to go to bowls out of 119 teams. Division II and III both take 24 teams into the playoffs.

In I-AA only 16 teams make the playoffs. Last year UMass was 7-4 with losses to the #1 team (by 6 points), the Patriot League champion (by 3 points), Army (by 7) and another 7-4 team and did not even get a hint of interest towards a playoff invite. Even a 8-3 record is not a guarantee. If you do go to the playoffs, and win the national championship, typically you will have defeated four teams with a combined record of about 33-6!

But the playoffs are great. In I-A, a team like Navy is shut out of the National Championship. But in I-AA, DII and DIII anything can happen. In our national championship year we were matched against the #1, #2 and #8 ranked teams. When we played on the field UMass won, not the higher ranked team. Don’t Navy fans wish they had that kind of chance?

Three UMass players from last year's team were picked up as NFL Free agents in the off-season. DB Shannon James went to the Ravens, WR R.J. Cobbs to the Vikings, and DL Keron Williams signed with Bucs. How does the loss of three extremely talented players reflect on this year's team, and does UMass have any NFL prospects coming into this year?

Shanon James was I-AA All-American and Keron Williams was All-A10 and our best defensive lineman. We’ll have to replace them by committee.

We probably have four NFL prospects in our seniors (free agents not draft picks). Perhaps the best is our punter Christian Koegel 6-0 185. He was #1 in I-AA in net punting and #3 in punting average. He is a lefty and the ball spins in the opposite direction that most punt returners are use to. He gives punt returners fits.
Our TB Steve Baylark 6-0 225 has 3,372 career yards and is vying to become only the third TB in I-AA history to have four 1,000 yard years in a row. He is a power runner that also can catch the ball out of the backfield. Brandon London, a 6-4 210 lb WR, has pro size and excellent hands. Our senior safety James Ihedigbo 6-1 202 is a heavy hitter and could get a free agent contract.

What has Head Coach Don Brown brought to this team in the past two seasons to keep them on a winning track?

UMass has had only one losing season in the last eight years. Coach Brown was the Defensive Coordinator of our 1998 National Championship team. He likes defense. His teams play hard and fast. He has proven an excellent recruiter and motivator.

It seems as though the Atlantic Ten has really become a powerhouse conference in the past couple seasons. Where does it stand in relation to other Div I-AA conferences? How do you think the Conference stacks up against the lesser I-A conferences?

In 2004 the Atlantic 10 was ranked first in I-AA conferences and the A10 power ranking was ahead of THREE I-A conferences. In 2005, we were ranked 4th in I-AA conferences. In the last seven years three A10 teams won the national championship (UMass 1998, Delaware 2003 and James Madison 2004.The A10 is easily the deepest I-AA conference. Since 2001, ten of the twelve league teams have advanced to the playoffs. No other I-AA league comes close to that record.

Also, an A10 team has beaten an I-A team six of the last eight seasons. In 2004, Maine beat Mississippi State and New Hampshire beat Rutgers. This year, I believe New Hampshire has a shot at beating Northwestern and Richmond should give Duke a hard time.

UMass is slated to play Boston College in 2007 and Texas Tech in 2008.

A good deal is made about the talent disparity between Div I-A and Div I-AA teams. In your experience, is this as prevalent as some contend, and do you believe (as we Navy fans do) that good coaching can beat superior talent a majority of the time?

Well, as all football fans know, I-AA allows only 63 scholarships spread over a maximum of 85 players. That’s one whole team right there. I-AA teams have far less depth than I-AA teams. Injuries tend to have more of an impact than at the I-A level. I-A teams have more athletes and more money than I-AA. Team speed is also an issue.

I-AA teams tend to be “half an I-A team” because limited scholarships mean I-AA teams tend to be good on one side of the ball and weaker on the other side. This effect was easily visible during the UMass-Army game. Our defense was fully competitive with Army. We held Army to no gain or a loss NINE times during the game and our defense scored two touchdowns. However, our offense, which by that time had lost four starters for the season, only scored 10 points.

Has there been any consideration on moving the program to the Div I-A level?

Yes, UMass has funded at least two studies about moving UMass to I-A. However, financial support of UMass athletics by the state of Massachusetts has proved shaky in the past. That and the lack of a obvious league to move into, led the last study to recommend UMass stay I-AA. That recommendation caused prior UMass coach Mark Whipple to accept a position as quarterback coach with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Reading around your blog, I've noticed several I-A transfers that will be playing for the Minute Men this season. How much will their presence be felt this season?

It looks like UMass will go into 2006 with 14 I-A transfers on our roster. Two will start; Patrick Powell a 6-4 265 DE from Maryland and Brad Anderson a 6-0 230 LB from Vanderbilt. Brown likes to play lots of packages. Typically 16 or 17 players on defense will see a lot of action. As many as five I-A transfers could see significant playing time in addition to the two listed above. Matt Lawrence a 6-1, 198 TB from UConn should see a lot of time in the backfield to spell Baylark.

Last season, UMassplayed a fairly close game with Army, although eventually falling 27-34. Does a close game against a Div I-A foe like the Black Knights give enough confidence to this team to be able to play a competitive game against a Div-I Bowl Team like Navy?

Since UMass has restarted playing I-A teams we have been competitive. However we rarely see any I-A team that is not ranked in the top twenty. We never get games with the Temples or New Mexico States of the world. Only strong I-A teams like Navy will play us.

I'm sure Navy fans will be happy to hear that. Let's talk about the UMass offense a little. Redshirt Sophomore Liam Coen looked impressive last year, especially in efficiency and completion percentage (believe it or not, I've actually watched some of these games online on the UMASS football website), and RB Steve Baylark has had three consecutive 100 yard seasons. Does this offense have the ability to put up points against Navy?

Our freshman QB was the #2 ranked freshman quarterback in I-AA last year with a 137.5 efficience rating. He completed 63.9 % of his passes and threw for 2,175 yards in 10 games.UMass’ receiving corps is very good. Our starting WR’s are Brandon London 6-4 210 pd (60 catches), Rasheed Rancher 6-5 187 (26 catches) and J.J. Moore 6-0 210 (27 catches in only four games before breaking his leg). UMass will not be shutout against Navy.

Sound slike this offense has some size. Let's switch gears. As I'm sure you know, Navy runs a very complex spread option offense which averages over 300 yards per game on the Division I level. What will the Minute Men do to try to stop this attack, and do you think can be successful in doing so?

Actually, few opponents Navy plays will be as familiar with the spread option as UMass. In 1998, UMass played Paul Johnson’s undefeated GSU team in the National Championship. We won 55-43. Coach Brown was the Defensive Coordinator for UMass during that game. UMass and GSU again met in the second round of the playoffs in 1999 and Coach Johnson won the re-match 38-21. Since then, UMass plays Rhode Island every year and the Rams run the Johnson spread offense. They were #3 in rushing offense in I-AA last year with a 318.5 yards/game average. UMass is 5-1 against the Rhode Island option (of course Navy has far superior athletes than does Rhode Island).

In the past, UMass has played four down linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs against the spread option. After that it’s assignment football and DRILL the option QB on every play even if he does not have the ball.

That said, I’ve watched Navy’s game against Colorado State in the Poinsettia Bowl several times. The Navy offense was SCAREY. Navy runs the spread option to perfection. While I think UMass has a better defense than Colorado State, defending the Navy offense will be a real challenge.

I'd be remised if I didn't ask you for a prediction for this one, so I'll go ahead and ask. Who wins and why?

Prediction: UMass has the edge in WR’s and punting. Linebackers are about even. Navy has an edge in team speed on both sides of the ball and is playing in their home stadium. Those 85 scholarships mean Navy has FAR more depth and athletes than does UMass.

With eight minutes to go in the third quarter Navy leads 24-21. Then the Midshipmen rip off three straight scoring drives to make it 45-21 Navy over the tiring Minutemen. The score could be one TD higher or lower depending when Johnson decides to call off the dogs...

I'd once again like to thank Frank for catching us up on the state of UMass football, and invite you to check back at the UMass Football Fanzone in a few days when he interviews me about this year's Navy team. For anyone really interested in seeing how this UMass team may look, I would recommend watching several of their games last season, made available for free by the Official Website.


Mike said...

Just wanted to say I enjoy the site and that (as a Louisville fan) if the Big East does add a football-only member in 2010, I sincerely hope its Navy.


Navy86 said...

I don't know that it's fair to say the UMass game is flying under the radar. Like PJ says, the most important game is the next one, and that's ECU. UMass gets our attention on September 3rd.

Very thorough read, though. Good stuff in there.

phelix said...

Agree with 86 on both counts.

And Navy would be shut out of a I-A playoff too. I'm in no hurry to see a change.

Anonymous said...

Gotta concur with the anti-playoff sentiment. We Navy fans would still have had happy finishes but would have been on the outside looking in after Army wins...far, far better to give Navy et al chance to end season as bowl winners.

Good UMass stuff. As of 3 Sep that's the most important game on the schedule.


taxeditor said...

Did you point out that Navy has either zero football scholarships, or about 4,000 depending on how you look at it?