UMass football: Minutemen welcome UConn to Amherst for season finale

UConn quarterback Ta'Quan Roberson (1) throws to a receiver during the first half against Tennessee earlier this month in Knoxville, Tenn.

UConn quarterback Ta'Quan Roberson (1) throws to a receiver during the first half against Tennessee earlier this month in Knoxville, Tenn. AP

By GARRETT COTE

Staff Writer

Published: 11-24-2023 3:03 PM

Modified: 11-24-2023 3:03 PM


AMHERST – Three of the four remaining independent FBS football teams (including Army, which is joining the AAC next season) are located in the northeast region of the country.

UMass (3-8) defeated the Black Knights 21-14 earlier in the season, so its noon matchup on Saturday with UConn (2-9) in the season finale stands as the crown for king of independents, excluding Notre Dame, obviously.

The Minutemen already have enough bad blood as it is, and the two programs only separated by 70 miles have split their previous four meetings down the middle dating back to 2018.

UMass head coach Don Brown was the defensive coordinator at UConn back in 2012, a year when the Huskies trounced the Minutemen 37-0. He expects his team to need no extra motivation heading into rivalry week.

“I’ve been on both sides of this rivalry, so that’s kind of an interesting piece,” Brown said during his weekly press conference on Monday. “But boy, to play at home in our rivalry game, it only happens twice in a [player’s] career. If you can’t get excited about that, then you got real problems... I’m sure the guys will be ready to go.”

UConn got the best of UMass in 2022, as the bowl-eligible Huskies pulled away late to win 27-10 in Storrs. This year has a different energy and feeling, however. The Minutemen have taken clear strides on both sides of the ball and brought in a ton of transfers to help them win their most games in a season since 2018.

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Huskies head coach Jim Mora has seen plenty of UMass’ Taisun Phommachanh-led offense to know his team is going to have its hands full on Saturday. Phommachanh, Kay’Ron Lynch Adams, Anthony Simpson, and Co. have provided a different dynamic offensively than previous seasons.

“I like UMass,” Mora said earlier in the week. “They’re big and physical up front, they average about 320 (pounds) across the board on offense. They brought in Phommachanh, he’s been hurt, you can see that it affected him a little bit, but he’s re-gained his form as a runner. He’s big, he’s physical, he’s played in big games. I think they’ve got two really good running backs that are dynamic, explosive guys, and I think they’ve got a really good receiving corps that has speed.”

At first glance, Brown didn’t see anything too complex in terms of what UConn likes to do schematically on the defensive side of the ball. During his three-year stint as defensive coordinator at Boston College, he worked alongside Nick Charlton, who is now the offensive coordinator with the Huskies.

Brown has an idea of what look Charlton and UConn will run most of their plays out of.

“Their offensive coordinator does a good job, I worked with him at Boston College,” Brown said. “They love to run a long zone, that’s probably their number one play. They don’t do a whole lot defensively, but they’re sound in what they do. It’s a solid team.”

UConn hasn’t been nearly as effective in the run game as it was a campaign ago. The Huskies only have one back with over 500 yards, and that’s sophomore Camryn Edwards (516). Fellow sophomore Victor Rosa sits behind him at 479 yards, and they’ve each scored two touchdowns this season. UConn’s leader in rushing touchdowns (six) is actually defensive lineman Jelani Stafford, as the big man is used in goal-line packages. After running for a combined 20 touchdowns in 2022, UConn sits at 12 scores on the ground heading into Saturday.

Senior quarterback Joseph Fagnano suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the second game of the season, forcing junior Ta’Quan Roberson to step in and fill the void. Roberson hasn’t rushed for more than 30 yards in a game this year, so the Minutemen defense won’t have to worry about another dual-threat quarterback haunting them. Roberson stands at 1,901 passing yards and 12 touchdowns while 58.4 percent of his passes. He’s also thrown six interceptions.

Mora has never made the trip to McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst. He’s eager to get his second win against the Minutemen on the road.

“They’re gonna be a challenge,” Mora said. “I’ve never been to UMass, to their stadium, so I’m looking forward to that. I think it’s always fun to play teams that are in the same vicinity geographically.”

Even approaching 70 years old and coaching for 45-plus years, Brown has still learned something new about the profession this year. He’s focused entirely on the day-by-day mentality, understanding the importance of handling each practice and game as something new than the previous one.

He also loves his job, which not many people can say with confidence.

“Just playing each and every game and each and every practice as its own separate entity,” Brown said. “But make sure you go to work with a smile on your face and realize that you’re working in the great game of football. We’re making strides as a team. It’s not going as fast as I want it to, but that [can be] a good thing too. I get up every morning, I get to coach football, and I get to be around great people.”

A win on Saturday would be extremely rewarding for UMass. The seven-game stretch following the season-opening win over New Mexico State was filled with adversity – the Minutemen were decimated with injuries. But as the year progressed, they never quit. UMass took the punches, got healthy, and have a chance to win three of its last four contests to close out 2023.

This is an opportunity for them to move the needle.

“Those guys have attempted to do all the right things, and I’m glad we’ve been able to make some progress for them,” Brown said. “But what a way to go out if they could get this fourth win this weekend.”