UMass football: Minutemen looking to hand undefeated Liberty their first loss 

Liberty's Kaidon Salter looks to run with blockers Jack Tucker and Quinton Cooley in front during the first half against Old Dominion last weekend in Lynchburg, Va.

Liberty's Kaidon Salter looks to run with blockers Jack Tucker and Quinton Cooley in front during the first half against Old Dominion last weekend in Lynchburg, Va. AP FILE


Staff Writer

Published: 11-17-2023 2:02 PM

Modified: 11-17-2023 2:02 PM

For the sixth consecutive season the UMass football team matches up with Liberty, as the Minutemen come into Saturday’s contest in Lynchburg, Va. with the undefeated Flames fresh off a bye week. Kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m. on ESPN-Plus.

The second bye week couldn’t have come at a better time for UMass. It has given head coach Don Brown and the coaching staff two weeks to prepare for its best non-Power 5 opponent of the 2023 slate.

“Well, I mean, they’re 10-0,” Brown said during Monday’s press conference. “They’ve gotten off to a good start and they’ve just kinda kept going. We’re excited about the challenge, that’s for sure. And obviously excited about having two weeks to prepare. We had a really good bye week in terms of our preparation.”

A common theme Brown brought up during his weekly presser was health, and the fact that the Minutemen are currently the healthiest they’ve been since the season opener against New Mexico State. 

Getting out of the Merrimack game unscathed, plus the extra week off, puts UMass in a great spot in terms of health. The offense, defense, and special teams responded to their teammates returning to practice by putting in a terrific week of work leading up to the game against Liberty.

“The approach in all three phases has been excellent,” Brown said. “From a conditioning standpoint, from a standpoint of getting healthy, that’s certainly happening as well. I think we’ll be very close to 100 percent going into Saturday… I feel really good about it.”

Considering the overall familiarity between the two programs, Brown and the Minutemen coaching staff have somewhat of an idea what Liberty is going to run offensively. Almost all of UMass’ opponents (excluding Army) have run a spread offense. The Flames are another team that likes to air it out, and they actually run similar schemes to UMass – which has helped them prepare this week in practice.

“Familiarity helps breed success because obviously you’ve seen the plays before,” Brown said. “So when you’re drawing cards and getting ready for the practice format that particular week, it’s nice when you’re getting guys on the beam ready to defend very similar type plays.”

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Even with the Flames moving on from head coach Hugh Freeze and bringing in former Coastal Carolina coach Jamey Chadwell, Brown has seen comparisons from last season to this one.

What the program has established over the years in terms of how they play and the steadiness in both the pass and run games are still the same.

“I would say they’re fairly similar in terms of their style,” Brown said. “But [each coach] has their nuances and the things they do differently, and there’s a good enough amount of that as well. The thing that I think of when I think of Liberty is balance. They’re gonna run it, they’re gonna throw it, and they’re gonna challenge you in both phases.”

Kaidon Salter is the man under center for Liberty. The sophomore is the definition of a dual threat quarterback. Salter has thrown for over 2,000 yards and run for over 700 while combining for 35 touchdowns. His ability to escape the pocket and avoid taking sacks – he’s only been sacked eight times in 10 games – should pose a sizable threat to the Minutemen defense.

“He does a good job of not only getting his eyes down the field and getting the ball out fairly quickly, but he also has the ability to run and get out of trouble,” Brown said of Salter. “Those guys always make your day a little bit longer, or the potential is there to make it a little bit longer. We’ve got to do an outstanding job of keeping him in front of us. If you’re behind him, that’s not a good place to be. You want all your rushers to be in front and in their rush lanes so we have a chance to get this guy on the ground when he decides to move and groove.”

Liberty’s defense leads the country in interceptions. The Flames are a ball-hawking defense that tries to go for the ball any chance they get. UMass running backs Kay’Ron Lynch Adams and Greg Desrosiers Jr. need to protect the ball with two hands, and Taisun Phommachanh can’t force throws into coverage on Saturday either.

Winning the turnover battle against a superior opponent is essential.

“Defensively, they’re a go-get-it defense,” Brown said. “Their pass defense, their takeaways, when you’re strong in those areas, that really helps your football team.”

Lynch Adams had a career day against Army recently, and Desrosiers Jr. followed that up with his own career performance against Merrimack on homecoming.

The two tailbacks had been playing through nagging injuries all season, and like the rest of the team, they, too – perhaps the two most explosive weapons on offense – are back to 100 percent.

“It’s nice because those guys have had a chance to breathe and get back to where they need to be,” Brown said of his running backs. “We’ve been smart with those guys and their load as well.”

The Minutemen (3-7) could have easily mailed it in after a porous stretch in the middle of the season. Instead, they rallied together to pick up two big wins back-to-back. 

UMass responded to adversity the best way it could. Now, as 27.5-point road underdogs, it needs to ride the momentum into Lynchburg and put forth its best effort of the season – because there is still something to play for.

Three 5-7 teams earned bowl-game appearances last season, and it looks like there might be a few spots for five-win teams again in 2023. With an outside chance at making the postseason, which was Don Brown’s goal at the beginning of the year, expect to see an inspired performance from the Minutemen.

“I really like our approach,” Brown said. “When things look tough, and things got tough for us, it’s nice to see us continue to play and go in the right direction. Obviously we’re playing our best football these last few weeks. I feel good about that.”