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UMass squanders lead in 29-19 loss

FOXBOROUGH — The noncompetitive 63-0 losses are one thing, but the double-digit second-half leads that quickly turn into double-digit defeats are more discouraging still.

Maybe that’s just how Saturday’s loss should sting UMass football, coming one week after the Minutemen’s first victory of the Division I FBS era. Buffalo ran off the final 22 points of the game to dump UMass, 29-19, in Mid-American Conference football action before 12,649 at Gillette Stadium.

UMass (1-10, 1-6 MAC) pitched a first-half shutout, leading 13-0 at the break, and still held a 19-7 advantage late in the third quarter. With three long touchdown drives, however, Buffalo (4-7, 3-4 MAC) wore out a flagging Minuteman defense. Bulls quarterback Joe Licata (18-of-30 passing, 226 yards) threw a pair of touchdown passes to give the visitors the lead, then Brandon Murie salted away the victory with a 12-yard insurance scoring run with only two minutes to play.

The Bulls began their comeback early in the third quarter when Adam Redden blocked a punt by UMass’ Colter Johnson and Kyndal Minniefield picked up the loose ball for a 33-yard return for a score, pulling Buffalo to within 13-7.

UMass answered after Trey Dudley-Giles ran a punt back 23 yards to the UB 41, and Mike Wegzyn hit Deion Walker for 38 yards down to the 3. Two plays later, Michael Cox ran it in from the 3 to make it 19-7, but the Minutemen failed on the extra-point try when the center snap was mishandled and holder Jeff Strait was wrapped up.

“The first half, we went into the locker room with great momentum, great confidence, great enthusiasm,” said UMass coach Charley Molnar. “When the offense didn’t move the ball to start off the (second) half, we had the blocked punt for a touchdown and then the PAT, the momentum of the game shifted dramatically and we gave them life.”

That life translated into an 11-play, 79-yard drive culminating in Licata’s 3-yard TD flip to Jimmy Gordon with 2:13 left in the third quarter. Patrick Clarke kicked the point-after to make it 19-14.

UMass went three-and-out on the next series and Buffalo went long-field once again, this time 77 yards in nine plays, including a 44-yard connection from Licata to Fred Lee to put the ball at the UMass 8. On third-and-goal from the 6, Licata hit Alex Neutz for the go-ahead touchdown with 12:45 to play in the game. Buffalo pushed the lead to three, 22-19, when tight end Alex Dennison threw a jump pass to Matt Weiser for the successful two-point conversion.

The Minutemen looked to catch a break on the next series when Buffalo’s Cordero Dixon seemed to fumble a punt out of his own end zone for an apparent UMass safety. The officials ruled that Dixon had muffed the ball and never had possession, leading to a touchback and the Bulls’ ball at their own 20.

That started Buffalo on a 15-play drive that took over seven minutes off the clock, on which the Bulls converted three third downs. Murie’s 12-yard TD run with two minutes left sealed Buffalo’s third straight win.

Wegzyn was then intercepted by Najja Johnson at the UB 33 to end UMass’ last-ditch drive. During the series, Wegzyn was sacked three times and also lost a fumble that the Minutemen recovered.

“That’s a great team we played and a great defense,” said Wegzyn (20-of-40 passing, 215 yards, one TD, two interceptions). “Some of those guys out there are the real deal. Obviously, at the end they showed what they could do. Now we just need to look back and learn from this game.”

Early on, the Minutemen got on the board through field goals of 39 and 32 yards by freshman Blake Lucas. With 56 seconds to go before the half, Wegzyn hit Rob Blanchflower down the middle and the tight end broke a tackle at the 5-yard line to complete the 14-yard scoring play, putting UMass up 13-0.

“We needed our defense to be at their very best in the fourth quarter, but I felt like they had been grinded down by Buffalo’s running game,” said Molnar. “If we had done better on offense, they wouldn’t have been on the field so much and certainly would have had more juice at the end of the game.”

Buffalo outgained UMass 405-264 as the Minutemen were limited to 49 rushing yards on 35 attempts. Murie led the Bulls and all rushers with 90 yards on 16 carries.

UMass closes out its 2012 season Friday at 3 p.m. against Central Michigan (5-6, 3-4 MAC) at Gillette Stadium.

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