Keeping Score: August days on the UMass gridiron

Friday, September 01, 2017

Good morning!

The pageantry of last week’s UMass football game against Hawaii was half of what John McCutcheon envisioned when the former athletic director moved the program into Division I and switched the playing site to Gillette Stadium.

The Foxboro venture was a failure, but the new and improved home schedule in Amherst is a godsend. The season opener attracted 12,125 fans to the 17,000 seat stadium. Students were still on summer break, making the turnout a testament to the support the community will give a competitive team.

Here’s what the scene was like before last week’s kickoff: Three generations of football fans tailgated, grandpas tossed footballs to their grandkids, and UMass alumni barbequed hot sausages and hamburgers while the wives and girlfriends relaxed in foldout chairs.

On the west horizon, a hot air balloon floated against lyricist Cole Porter’s “light from a purple night in Spain” and under the grandstands UMass cooks showed why the Princeton Review named them the country’s best dining providers for two consecutive years. Vic Keedy, take a bow from on high.

Near the monuments on the south side of McGuirk Stadium, Glen and Edie Higa were dressed in green-and-black Rainbow Warrior garb and looking for a UMass watering hole. “Where’s Rafters?” they asked.

“Over there,” I answered, pointing southeast beyond the trees. A UMass fan drove into the parking area, tapped his horn at them and extended his thumb and pinkie finger. They smiled and returned the gesture. “It’s our way of saying hi and goodbye. I’m not sure of the origins. We all do it,” said Glen.

Their trip from Honolulu to Denver and on to Boston had taken 18 hours. They toured the Freedom Trail from the Boston Common to Bunker Hill Monument and saw a Red Sox game at Fenway Park. “They got crushed. It was terrible,” said Glen, who graduated from the University of Hawaii in 1993 and works for the Honolulu Chamber of Commerce.

“Boston’s expensive,” I said.

“We’re from Hawaii, we’re used to it,” he replied. “Living there, the taxes are unbelievable.”

“Ever been to Florida?” I asked.

Edie shrugged and answered, “Orlando.”

After they left for their brews, a ROTC cadet named John Geenty pulled up in a golf cart and offered me a ride to the gate. A Worcester native, Geenty said he was a computer science major who’d completed “advance camp” at Fort Knox and hoped he’d be accepted into the U.S. Army’s Cyber Command after he graduates. “If I’m accepted I’ll be stationed at Fort Gordon in Georgia,” he said.

“Cyber attacks, that’s big,” I replied. “What do you think of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks?”

Geenty acted like he was being tested. He stared at me a few moments and answered, “I can’t comment on that, sir.”

The food vendors hustled to keep the lines moving, flipping cheeseburgers and doling out clam chowder. It was Youth Sports Day at UMass and kids swarmed inside a mobile arcade. “All the games are set on free play,” said Gary Kaplan, who had towed his gaming palace from his home in Ludlow behind a new Ford F450. “We’re booked every weekend. Birthdays are our big thing, $399 for a two hour rental.”

During the game the kids walked through the grandstands dressed in full gear, and at halftime they had the thrill of scrimmaging on the UMass gridiron.

High school coaches had been invited to bring their players to the game. Turners Falls coach Chris Lapointe sat with his wife Kerri and their son Jaiden and daughter Kendyl. They sat in the far corner on the home team’s side and at halftime were visited by lineman Dominic Carme, quarterback Kyle Dodge, and wideout/defensive back Ryan Campbell. “If we can keep our core of 11 players healthy we’ll be in good shape,” said Lapointe. “If we can’t, we’re in trouble.”

On the field, the two teams combined for 916 yards of offense, not the sort of helmet-thumper from the Yankee Conference days of yore when a 14-10 outcome was considered a shootout.

UMass quarterback Andrew Ford was sacked four times but otherwise side-stepped the chaos of Hawaii’s blitzing linebackers. He completed 21 passes for 275 yards and two touchdowns, and UMass coach Mark Whipple put Ross Comis in for nine plays near halftime. His relentless energy will be useful if Ford gets hurt.

The two teams exploded for 44 points in the final two quarters, capped by Hawaii quarterback Dru Brown’s short touchdown pass to Metuisela Unga with 48 seconds to give Hawaii a 38-35 win.

The only downer during the three-and-a-half hour game was hearing the pile driving thump-thump-thump of hip hop. “The music is terrible,” groused a UMass player’s parent.

Agreed. With a little imagination, UMass could’ve delighted Hawaii fans with a few bars of “Tiny Bubbles” or Elvis’s “Hawaiian Wedding Song.”

Being a newly minted season ticket holder, I called account rep Mike Cattaruzza. “It’s a separate department,” he said. “I do know they try to cater to both the players and the fans.”

Fair enough, but next time play country music—Dolly Parton’s “Muleskinner Blues” or Dave Dudley’s “Two Six Packs Away”— to go with that down-low, funky jive stuff. 

Don’t count on it. Bring your earplugs and be prepared for a good show next week against Old Dominion.

SCOUTING THE ROOSTERS: Tonight’s game against Coastal Carolina could be a UMass blowout. The Chanticleers are a team in turmoil. In February, sophomore quarterback Avery McCall was kicked off the team for disciplinary reasons. According to thestate.com, McCall didn’t “live up to his responsibilities associated with the program’s standard of behavior known as BAM (be a Man).”

In July, sophomore running back Jah-Maine Martin was suspended indefinitely after he was arrested for illegal possession of a stolen pistol. Alan Blondin wrote on myrtlebeachonline.com: “(Martin) was the driver of a Cadillac in which all five occupants were arrested.”

Two weeks later, head coach Joe Moglia announced he was taking a five month medical leave to deal with bronchial asthma. Offensive coordinator Jamey Chadwell is the interim coach.

The Chanticleers are new to the FBS and were picked to finish last in the 12-team Sun Belt Conference. They play at Brooks Stadium and 5,800 seats were hastily installed in order to meet the NCAA’s 15,000-seat minimum requirement.

The UMass defense will be up against a pair of transfer students from the northeast, quarterback Austin Wilson from Syracuse and running back Marcus Outlow from Boston College.

At a midweek press conference, Chadwell was playing cat-and-mouse about which of the team’s seven quarterbacks was starting: “To be honest I’d like to know myself,” he said.

Tonight’s game opened as a pick ‘em and moved to UMass by 2½ points. … Former NFL quarterback Tyler Thigpen and cornerback Josh Norman are both Coastal Carolina alumni. … Despite last week’s loss, UMass moved up nine spots to 139th in the USA Today ratings. Coastal Carolina is 164th. … Beat writer Gene Sapakoff of the Charleston Post & Courier predicted Coastal Carolina’s over/under for wins is 4½ games— “At best.” … Hawaii is listed as a six-point underdog today against Western Carolina by oddshark.com. The Catamounts play in the Southern Conference and were 2-11 last season. … Lower sideline seats to the Notre Dame game against Boston College at Alumni Stadium in two weeks are selling for $261.50 on StubHub… End zone seats cost over $100. …  BC defensive end Harold Landry is ranked as the third-best overall prospect in next year’s NFL draft by cbssports.com. … The Eagles, who opened last night against Northern Illinois, are the only team in the ACC without a I-AA opponent on the schedule. … “Motivation is simple,” said Lou Holtz. “You eliminate those who are not motivated.”