ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Despite scoring more points against the Michigan Wolverines than the combined total produced by Notre Dame and Connecticut in the first two weeks of the season, the Massachusetts Minutemen football team didn't see a moral victory in Saturday's 42-37 loss to the No. 20 program at Michigan Stadium.
The Minutemen had harbored dreams of repeating fellow FCS team Appalachian State's 2007 upset of the storied program and reaping all the attention that came with it. So when the clock ran out on their comeback, the Minutemen hung their heads as they walked off the Big House turf.
"I thought the UMass kids played extremely hard and tough. But in the end, we weren't able to come away with a win," UMass coach Kevin Morris said. "The effort is one thing, but we want to come out with a win in every game we play. Even against a good team like Michigan."
But as the Minutemen prepare to return to FCS play at Stony Brook next week, they look like a team poised to exceed preseason predictions.
Picked eighth out of 10 teams in the league's preseason poll, UMass wasn't expected to contend in the challenging Colonial Athletic Association. From 2009's 5-6 squad, the Minutemen lost an All-American at offensive line (Vladimir Ducasse) as well as safety (Jeromy Miles) and two wide receivers (the New York Giants' Victor Cruz and Kansas City Chiefs' Jeremy Horne), who made NFL teams as undrafted free agents. They returned only a handful of starters on both sides of the ball, and one of those was senior quarterback Kyle Havens, whose 15 interceptions put him among the nation's leaders in the category.
But the arrivals of refugees from the discontinued programs at Northeastern and Hofstra have given the Minutemen a significant lift.
Senior running back John Griffin, who rushed for 1,009 yards last year for Northeastern, has been a key part of UMass' two-pronged running attack along with Jonathan Hernandez (114 yards, two touchdowns Saturday). Griffin's Northeastern teammate Greg Niland has helped replace Ducasse, a second-round pick of the New York Jets, on the offensive line. Former Hofstra receiver Anthony Nelson has been Havens' favorite target through three games.
The returning players have gotten better. The four new starters on the defensive line have all produced, while Havens, who has just one interception through three games, has flourished in his second season after transferring from junior college.
"Three games in, he's done what we've asked him to do," Morris said. "He's made some plays when he's had to and keeps getting better."
UMass opened the season with a 27-23 upset of then-No. 4 William & Mary and followed with a 31-7 win over Holy Cross. Despite losing, Saturday's performance only added to the appearance that UMass could be a pretty good team.
"Michigan is a great team," Hernandez. "Anyone who saw the game can see we can play with them."
The Minutemen couldn't slow down dual-threat quarterback Denard Robinson (345 total yards, two TDs), but that doesn't make them different from any FBS team that's faced Robinson this year. Their offensive effort against the best team they've faced this year reinforced the growing optimism.
"I think after this game, you'd have to say we're getting better as a team," Morris said. "We have to keep doing it. If we keep playing the way we're playing and fighting the way we're fighting, we're going to have a shot in every ballgame. "
Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez was impressed and told the UMass players after the game.
"I went into their locker room. I don't do that very often, but I have a great respect for that team to come in the way they did and execute the way they did," Rodriguez said. "They have some guys who can play. They played their tails off and I think they'll win a lot of games."