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Minutemen gamble, fall to Broncos, 31-30

FOXBOROUGH — Eleven seconds into Saturday’s game, with an immediate 7-0 lead for UMass, the Homecoming crowd at Gillette Stadium found themselves enthused about the prospects of a comfortable victory over winless Western Michigan.

With 22 seconds left in the game, though, those same 20,571 saw victory fly away with an incomplete pass by UMass quarterback A.J. Doyle on a two-point conversion attempt, leaving the Minutemen on the wrong end of a 31-30 final score.

The choice to pass up the potential game-tying extra point in favor of the two-pointer and the win fell to UMass head coach Charley Molnar, and the decision and its outcome fell heavily on him afterwards as the Minutemen dropped to 1-7 overall and 1-3 in the Mid-American Conference.

“If we went into an overtime situation, we would get potentially into a kicking battle,” said Molnar. “Obviously our kicking game isn’t the best at this moment in time. We felt like we could put the ball in the hands of our best players, guys who have made plays for us not only (Saturday) but consistently through the season. So that was the thought process, nothing more or nothing less than that.”

UMass placekicker Blake Lucas had missed a 22-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter, following a 41-yard miss in the first quarter, but also made a 37-yarder and kicked three extra points. Those kicks brought Lucas’ season total to 3-of-10 on field goals and 10-of-10 on extra points.

“I just felt, why put it on the foot of a guy who, the last time he was out there on the field, was unsuccessful,” said Molnar of Lucas. “I knew he could make the PAT. That wasn’t the issue. When you get into overtime, a lot of times, it comes down to field goals.”

WMU freshman Zach Terrell threw his fourth touchdown pass of the day, a 54-yard strike to Corey Davis, beating a UMass blitz to give the Broncos (1-8, 1-4 MAC) a 31-24 lead with 4:55 left in the game. That left the Minutemen enough time to mount a 13-play, 68-yard drive, with freshman Lorenzo Woodley (team-high 58 yards) rushing eight times for 40 yards and Doyle hitting Derek Beck for a 21-yard gain. Doyle converted a fourth-and-1 from the Western 6-yard line with a 4-yard keeper, and on first-and-goal from the 2, Woodley barreled in over left tackle for the score to pull UMass to within a point with 22 seconds to go.

There was little delay or deliberation on the UMass sideline, as the Minutemen came out quickly for the two-point try. Doyle rolled to his right and had receiver Elgin Long running along the back line of the end zone, but the pass sailed well over Long’s head to blow up any chance of victory.

“It’s a play we’ve been practicing all year long,” said Doyle, who finished 15-of-24 passing for 194 yards and a touchdown. “We haven’t run it, but we’ve repped it a lot in practice. They played it the way we expected them to. I just threw a bad ball — put that on me.”

The onside kick was touched by UMass’ onrushing Khary Bailey-Smith, but he couldn’t control the football, and Western recovered to end it.

At the outset, it was Bailey-Smith who fielded the opening kickoff of the day and ran it back 90 yards to give the Minutemen an instant 7-0 lead. Jamal Wilson added a 3-yard scoring run, the first of his career, early in the second quarter and Doyle threw a 6-yard TD pass to Rob Blanchflower (seven catches, career-best 131 yards) as UMass opened a 21-10 lead. That was set up by a Doyle-to-Blanchflower 55-yard pass play that put the ball at the WMU 1. But the Broncos pulled back to within 21-17 at the half when Terrell threw to Kendrick Roberts for a 5-yard score with 2:13 to play before the break.

The 21 first-half points marked the most for UMass since scoring 21 at Richmond Oct. 29, 2011.

Western Michigan then took the lead on the opening drive of the third, 24-21, when Terrell and Davis connected for the first of their two touchdowns, a 14-yarder with 11:59 left. Lucas answered for UMass with his 37-yard field goal with 6:36 to go in the third, tying the game at 24-24. It stayed that way until Lucas pushed his 22-yard try wide to the right with 14:17 to play in the fourth, denying the Minutemen a three-point lead.

Terrell completed 23-of-36 passes for 275 yards and Davis had 10 catches for 154 yards for the Broncos.

UMass now has to contend with the MAC’s far-and-away best team, 18th-ranked Northern Illinois (8-0, 4-0 MAC), Saturday at noon at Gillette Stadium.

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