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Friday, November 1, 2013
Tough matchup looms for UMass

By Jack McCluskey

There are disappointing losses, and then there’s what happened to UMass at Gillette Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

Desperate for points all season (averaging just 6.9 points per game entering the weekend), the Minutemen scored touchdowns in multiple ways against Western Michigan. Khary Bailey-Smith (a Weymouth, Mass., product) ran back the opening kickoff 90 yards for a TD, running back Jamal Wilson ran for a 3-yard score and tight end Rob Blanchflower (a Leominster, Mass., native) caught a 6-yard TD strike from quarterback A.J. Doyle (from Lakeville, Mass.).

The Minutemen scored 30 points, more than they scored in their past four games combined (27). But they still lost.

Trailing the Broncos 31-24 late in the fourth quarter, Doyle led the Minutemen on a potential game-winning drive that ended with a 2-yard plunge by Lorenzo Woodley. That made it 31-30 Broncos, who entered Saturday 0-8 on the season.

Coach Charley Molnar, trying to get win No. 2 for his Minutemen and wary of his kicking game in overtime, opted to go for two and the victory.

The try failed and UMass fell to 1-7 (1-3 in Mid-American Conference play).

“We have certainly closed the gap on many of our MAC opponents and we're now playing them to a one-point game,” Molnar said, according to a transcript of his weekly conference call. The Broncos beat the Minutemen 52-14 in 2012, before taking a major step back in 2013. “It's disappointing, but obviously we're glad that we're making strides in that area.”

But close doesn’t count in the record books, and the Minutemen are still trying to get past the one-win total that’s been a high-water mark for the program in the first two seasons at the FBS level (finishing 2012 1-11).

That task doesn’t get any easier this week, with No. 17 Northern Illinois coming to Foxborough, Mass., for a noon kickoff (on ESPN3). The Huskies are 8-0 and come into the matchup averaging 41.9 points per game, with a season low of 27.

“We cannot afford to spend too much time looking back,” Molnar said. “We have what might be the best team on our schedule in front of us this week, so it has gotten a lot of attention. We tried to close the book on Saturday's game as fast as we could and turned all of our preparations to Northern Illinois.”

Senior QB Jordan Lynch ranks second in the MAC in rushing average (128.9) and fifth in passing average (213.9). He’s thrown for 18 TDs and only five interceptions, adding another eight TDs on the ground.

“He may be one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the country,” Molnar said. “Beyond the obvious physical skill set that he has -- he's a great runner and above-average passer -- he really is the brains behind their offense when he is out there on the field. He does it all; he's the unequivocal leader for their football team.”

It stands to reason, then, that to beat the Huskies the Minutemen will have to slow (if not stop) Lynch. But after the UMass defense allowed Western Michigan’s Zach Terrell to throw for 275 yards and four touchdowns, beating Lynch and the Huskies may prove to be too much to ask.

Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.