It was never going to happen overnight. Transitioning from Division I-AA to Division I-A was going to take time, and UMass head coach Charley Molnar knew it.
But that doesn’t mean he thought his team would be 0-5 heading into its sixth game of the season, in Waldo Stadium against Western Michigan (2-3, 0-1 MAC).
The Minutemen almost got the first win of their first season at the FBS level this past weekend, putting a serious scare into conference-leading Ohio (5-0, 1-0) before losing 37-34 at Gillette Stadium.
And while they aren’t looking for moral victories, Molnar won’t ignore the signs of progress he sees, either.
“We’re growing incrementally better every time we go out there,” Molnar said in his weekly MAC conference call. “We’ve had different guys step up each and every game, which is really good to see. … The offense continues to get better.”
Two weeks ago it was the running game and Michael Cox stepping to the fore, running 30 times for 188 yards and two touchdowns in a loss to Miami (Ohio). This past week, it was the passing game and quarterback Mike Wegzyn’s turn.
The redshirt freshman threw 51 times, completing 27 passes for 373 yards and four touchdowns without an interception. Two UMass receivers had more than 100 yards receiving, with Deion Walker pulling in 11 balls for 162 yards and a score, and Alan Williams pulling in seven balls for 127 yards and three scores.
Now comes a new challenge in the Broncos.
“They run a different style of defense, they’re the first team we’re gonna play that really bases out of the 3-4,” Molnar said. “This will be the first time that we get a steady diet of it.”
On offense, the Broncos lean on the pass. They rank third in the MAC with 272.2 yards passing a game.
“They certainly have a big, strong offensive line, very, very much like a Big Ten offensive line from a size, strength and power standpoint,” Molnar said.
Western Michigan also has one of the MAC’s top playmakers in freshman Jaime Wilson, who is first in the conference in catches per game with 9.4 and second in receiving yards a game at 106.6, touchdowns with 5 and total yards at 533.
“We’re gonna have to be disciplined on defense, read our keys, contain the quarterback and make sure that we don’t allow big plays to happen,” Molnar said.
If the Minutemen can do all that, they just might be able to take the next step and get that first win.
Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.