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Keeping Score

Keeping Score: Whipple effect

Good morning!

The Mark Whipple Show debuts today at Gillette Stadium, where the UMass Minutemen are 17-point underdogs against Boston College.

UMass athletic director John McCutcheon took his mulligan the day after Christmas when he fired Charley Molnar with three years and $836,000 remaining on his contract.

“There wasn’t the sense we were where we needed to be,” said McCutcheon, who two years earlier had hired Molnar because his “... background clearly separated him from an outstanding pool of applicants.”

It’s hard to imagine any coach who could’ve done worse than Molnar. He alienated fans, had two wins in 24 games and regularly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Tonight he’ll be the wide receivers coach for the University of Idaho when the Vandals take the gridiron as 361/2-point underdogs against the University of Florida.

Whipple will win games that Molnar lost, like the head-scratcher against Western Michigan when the Minutemen scored late but lost, 31-30, because Molnar went for the two-point conversion and the pass was incomplete.

In January, Whipple was interviewed by a hiring committee that screened applicants at Bradley International Airport. He signed a five-year deal worth $1.25 million and his presence generated hope and excitement from the get-go.

His first move was to clean house; by my count there are 23 underclassmen missing from the 2013 spring roster. Then he found a quarterback who would help him rule the gridiron. Finding a smart and skilled quarterback has always been Whipple’s modus operandi; it was Ken Suhl in the 1980s, Todd Bankhead in the 1990s, and today it’s a 6-foot-6, 230-pound transfer named Blake Frohnapfel.

Frohnapfel was the backup at Marshall University, where Rakeem Cado was last season’s conference MVP. He’d come in for mop-up duty during blowouts and in two seasons completed 35 of 45 passes for 386 yards and five touchdowns. Best of all, he’d already completed his undergraduate degree and was immediately eligible to play.

UMass fans have known Whipple since 1998 when he coached the Minutemen to the I-AA championship. After the 2003 season, he left to be the Pittsburgh Steelers’ quarterback coach, then joined the Philadelphia Eagles’ staff. In 2009, Miami Hurricanes coach Randy Shannon hired Whipple to be his offensive coordinator. Rather than open against a I-AA pushover, the Canes’ season opener was against 18th-ranked Florida State.

In Tallahassee, Seminole fans honed in on Miami’s new offensive coordinator. “Whipple is distinctly pro-style,” wrote football blogger Bud Elliott on Tomahawk Nation. “He speaks often of his huge playbook and his experience in the pro ranks. He’s had his players watch film of the Steelers and Eagles. We decided to break down some old game film from his days at UMass with the help of frequent contributor Online01075.”

Online01075 apparently lives (or lived) in South Hadley since it’s the town’s zip code. Here’s a condensed version of his scouting report of the UMass offense while Whipple was the coach from 1998 to 2003:

“He operates out of the Pro I, slot I, double tight I, twins offset I strong. ... These aren’t earth-shattering sets, and they don’t use a lot of motion.

“They’ll run a play back-to-back if it’s working and running plays include a toss, inside zone, counter trey, draw and a shitty reverse.

“People I’ve asked say he loves to throw to the back, get as many (players) into pass routes as possible and release five receivers, which puts a lot of pressure on the OL.

“He attacks vertical off the play-action passing game, very NFL-style, and he’ll attack the flats with the tight end and RBs if the coverage is off.

“Whipple is very smart and understands fourth-down math, much like Belichick, Meyer, Parcells and other great coaches. He loves to throw the ball in the red zone, goes for it deep in his own end and creates great spacing in the passing game.”

Despite being six-point dogs on the road, Miami beat Florida State, 38-34, with Jacory Harris throwing for 376 yards in front of 80,000 fans at Doak Campbell Stadium.

About 35,000 fans are expected today at Gillette Stadium, and Whipple would love to beat the team that spurned him after he applied for the BC coaching vacancy in 2007.

If Frohnapfel’s on his game and Whipple can devise enough schemes to confuse the freshman-laden Eagles, UMass could pull off the upset. Conversely, Eagles coach Steve Addazio might have his hard-hitting Eagles primed to push UMass all over the gridiron.

In Las Vegas, Frohnapfel is listed as “probable.” Is he injured or off his game? Nobody’s saying. The Vegas money line is $100 to win $65 on Boston College, or $65 to win $100 on UMass.

By most standards, UMass has an easy schedule. The ESPN power rankings list Boston College 88th of 128 teams in the FBS and five other opponents are ranked even higher — Ball State (91), Kent State (98), Buffalo (100), Eastern Michigan (122) and Miami of Ohio (123). Penn State is ranked at 48th, the only opponent the Minutemen play that’s in the Top 50.

UMass is ranked 126th and thus the perpetual underdog; they are the game on the schedule that every one of their opponents has circled as a “must win.” If I were a Vegas oddsmaker I’d put the over/under at 3.5 wins, but Whipple’s high-flying offense will make even losing fun.

Kick off is scheduled for 3 p.m. and will be broadcast on ESPN3.


King John: An hour before last week’s Travers Stakes, I called John Dobrydnio and asked if he was changing his pick. Our handicapper has a knack for picking long shots but I thought maybe he’d overreached with a bombardier named V.E. Day. On paper, the young colt looked overmatched by the big guns: Belmont Stakes winner Tonalist, Jim Dandy winner Wicked Strong, and Haskell winner Bayern.

“I just put another $60 on him,” answered Dobrydnio.

Sure enough, the Jimmy Jerkins-trained colt nipped Wicked Strong at the Wire and Tonalist was third. The frontrunners had tired themselves out, allowing jockey Javier Castellano to gun V.E. Day down the stretch and win by a nose.

“I spend a lot of time on this,” said Dobrydnio. “You know, not to look bad.”

V.E. Day paid $41 on a two dollar bet.

Take a bow John. All hail the king.


Desperately seeking Bigfoot: The Red Sox need a superstar to replace David Ortiz, and Miami’s Giancarlo Stanton’s their man. The 24-year-old slugger is batting .294 with 33 home runs and 97 RBIs. Stanton is making $6.5 million this season while teammate Jarrod Saltalamacchia earns $7 million while batting .234.

Bigfoot, as his teammates call him, would pulverize the ball in Fenway Park, and is a free agent in 2017. He’s trade-ripe and the Red Sox can swap for him by giving Miami Yoenis Cespedes and newly-signed Cuban outfielder Rusney Castillo. Reader Peter Hantzis points out that Cespedes will be a free agent next season, so the Red Sox will probably need to add another player into the mix.

Getting Stanton would be as big as getting Pedro Martinez from Montreal in 1998 and Manny Ramirez from Cleveland in 2001. It will put Boston back on the map, and the deal will get done.

Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley.

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