Keeping Score

Keeping Score: Anchor’s away

Good morning!

Today is Homecoming Day at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, where the UMass Minutemen are three-point favorites to beat Western Michigan University.

WMU’s new coach is 32-year-old P.J. Fleck whose motto is, “Row the Boat.”

Gently down the gridiron?

As motivational sayings go, it isn’t exactly “Win one for the Gipper.”

Somewhere on Google is a photo of the WMU cheerleaders standing in front of a row boat, though Michigan isn’t known for its lakes. Maybe it’s because 31 players on the roster are from Florida, a state surrounded by water.

To get the school on board, Fleck started a Row the Boat dance and jumped into frigid waters with “Row the Boat” painted in big black letters on his chest. “The boat is the sacrifice, the oar is the energy, the compass is success,” he explained.

Whatever the reason, the Broncos football program is sinking faster than a rusty blocking sled. Two years ago they played — and lost to — Purdue in the Little Caesars Bowl. Last year they were 4-8 and this season they’ve nosedived to 0-8. USA Today rates them as the fourth-worst of 126 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

Granted, the 1-6 Minutemen are ninth-worst and have scored the fewest points of any team in the FBS, but despite quarterback A.J. Doyle’s 7.7 passer rating against Buffalo last week, the prediction here is that he’ll lead his team to victory. And that you can bet the boat on.

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The UMass hockey program is doing everything short of burning sage to erase the karma of season’s past. They’ve swapped benches, and what was once Cahoonaville is now enemy territory. The student section has been relocated and last week the undergrads swarmed the Mullins Center, revving it with energy while tweeting not tottering.

What would complement this newfound energy would be the presence of the UMass band playing “Fight Fight Massachusetts” and a pre-game ceremony to retire the numbers of past greats Jonathan Quick and Thomas Pock, hoisting their jerseys alongside Lou Roe and Marcus Camby.

The Minutemen swept Michigan State last weekend in front of a two-day crowd of over 12,000 fans. Among the MSU alumni at Friday night’s game was Craig Hefner, who teaches at NMH. “I played JV hockey at Michigan State,” said Hefner, who was wearing a green Spartans baseball hat. “I’m not coaching this winter so I’ll have to get down here more often.”

He’ll need to check the schedule because the Minutemen play only one home game between Nov. 24 and Jan. 12 — Denver on Dec. 17.

What he saw last week wasn’t the caliber of Spartans team that won the NCAA championship six years ago under longtime coach Rick Comley, who’s been replaced by third-year coach Tom Anastos. “This coach, he’s a good ol’ boy coach and that’s why (the Spartans) aren’t good anymore ,” said Paul Lynch of Flint, Mich.

Lynch was with a youth team that was playing a tournament in Connecticut and had taken a Peter Pan bus up to watch the Spartans. “I don’t think he’s going to last,” he said of Anastos.

Four Michigan State players do indeed have NHL bloodlines, Dean and Jake Chelios, Brock Krygier and David Bondra, whose fathers Chris, Todd and Peter, respectively, played in the NHL.

“Terrible. Awful,” Lynch said of the quartet that combined for one assist (by Dean Chelios) against UMass.

The Minutemen opened the season with losses at Boston University and UMass-Lowell, but a better barometer of their league competence will be this weekend in Orono and next weekend in Amherst, when they play Maine four times in nine days.

The Black Bears were 11-19-8 last season and suffered their lowest attendance total in 22 years. The program has lost 1,700 season ticket holders the last five years and consequently coach Tim Whitehead was fired with one year and $195,000 left on his contract. Former UMass assistant Red Gendron was signed to a four-year contract worth $820,000 and has cleaned house, dropping nine underclassmen from last year’s roster.

The Black Bears lost back-to-back games at St. Lawrence and narrowly beat Bentley, 2-1, at home last week.

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After years of watching the St. Louis Cardinals train in Florida, my perception of the Red Birds’ fans is that they are a stuck-up, we’re-better-than-you bunch. They never believed that Mark McGwire did steroids (until he admitted it) and they don’t think the umpires should’ve reversed Wednesday’s call at second base.

Not Tom Holliday, whose son Matt is in the Cardinals’ lineup. “They went against the umpire’s code,” Holliday said on XM Radio the next morning. “It’s controversial. It’s what the crowd wants. Yeah, they got it right but they did it wrong.”

Those are surprising words considering Holliday is no run-of-the-mill fan. He was a longtime coach at Oklahoma State and is currently the associate head coach at North Carolina State.

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By now you’ve heard of the Texas parent who filed a bullying report after his son’s team was beaten 91-0 by Aledo High School. Here’s what losing coach John Naylor told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram about the lopsided margin: “We just ran into a buzz saw. Aledo plays hard, they’re good sports and they don’t talk at all. They get after it, and that’s the way football is supposed to be played in Texas.”

Amen to that.

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Squibbers: In the early 20th century footballs were rounder and lighter colored. That’s why after Notre Dame’s 35-13 win against Army in 1913, New York Times sportswriter Harry Cross dubbed it “the yellow leather egg.” ... Nick O’Leary led all FBS tight ends with 161 yards on five catches during Florida State’s romp of Clemson last week. O’Leary is the grandson of golf legend Jack Nicklaus. ... It wouldn’t be fall or spring without a trip to Gould’s Sugar House for hot, steaming pancakes and fritters. The sugar shack opened in 1960. “Sugar on snow,” said Helen Gould, “Then Edgar said I think they want pancakes.” ... Radio host Dan Patrick told of the time in 2004 his son got off the bus from school in New York and told his father, ‘They peed on my Red Sox hat.’ Patrick’s reaction? “Welcome to the rivalry.” ... Don Mattingly’s biggest challenge next season will be taming Yasiel Puig, who’s fast becoming a mini Manny. ... A week from today baseball season will be over. The leaves will be down, the wind will be blowing, the time will change and days will be darker. Not my favorite time of year, the long wait between now and pitchers and catchers, but it’s sure been fun while it lasted.

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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