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Massachusetts (0-0) at Connecticut (0-0)
The Sports Network
DATE & TIME: Thursday, August 30th, 7:30 p.m. (et)
FACTS & STATS: Site: Rentschler Field (40,000) -- East Hartford, Connecticut. Television: ESPN3.com, Big East, SNY. Home Record: UMass 0-0, UConn 0-0 Away Record: UMass 0-0, UConn 0-0. Neutral Record: UMass 0-0, UConn 0-0. Conference Record: UMass 0-0, UConn 0-0. Series Record: UMass leads 33-36-2.
GAME NOTES: The Massachusetts Minutemen will be welcomed into their first season at the FBS level on Thursday when they take on Connecticut in an all-New England showdown at Rentschler Field.
The 2012 season will be the first in which Massachusetts will be a member of an FBS conference after competing at the FCS level for the rest of the program's history. The Minutemen will be breaking in as a member of the Mid-American Conference.
Massachusetts went 5-6 overall last season and was 3-3 on the road in what was a rather mediocre season that ended without a playoff berth. After opening the year with two wins, the Minutemen dropped two straight including a 45-17 loss to Boston College. UMass rebounded with two wins, but then went 1-4 the rest of the way to close out the year.
UConn had an equally bland and disappointing year that ended without a postseason berth. After four straight bowl appearances, the Huskies went 5-7 in 2011, missing out on bowl legibility by a game. UConn went 2-4 to start the season, but lost three of those games by seven or fewer points. UConn then split its last six games in a season in which the Huskies could never consistently put together wins.
These squads have a long history against one another with 71 total meetings dating back to 1897. The last meeting occurred in 1999, the last year in which UConn was an FCS school. UMass won that contest 62-20 after losing the three previous matchups.
The move up to the FBS also came with a change in the coaching staff for Massachusetts. Former Notre Dame offensive coordinator Charley Molnar will take over head coaching responsibilities and Mike Kruczek will be the third offensive coordinator in as many seasons for the Minutemen. Kruczek will employ a spread attack at Massachusetts.
One consistency for UMass on offense will be quarterback Kellen Pagel. Despite playing in three different systems, the junior managed to start each of the last two seasons with some relative success. In 2011, Pagel completed 57.3 percent of his passes for 1,725 yards and nine touchdowns.
A key to a successful spread offense is the line which could be a strength for the Minutemen. Four starters return in the trenches including three seniors, led by left tackle Nick Speller.
Giving Pagel time to throw will be crucial for the Minutemen, who are decidedly weak at the skill positions. Chase Danska and Marken Michel are the expected starters at receiver but the two combined for just four catches during the 2011 season. Tight end Rob Blanchflower will likely be called upon in many passing situations, as the leading returning receivers with 18 catches in 2011.
Equally thin is the rushing attack for UMass with just 35 carries between Jordan Broadnax and Alan Williams, who figure to both be utilized in a tandem backfield.
Although its defense was solid last season, UMass will be shifting from a 3-4 scheme to a 4-3 alignment in 2011. The good news is that 10 starters will return, providing stability in terms of personnel.
Middle linebacker Perry McIntyre is the leading returning tackler after he racked up 116 stops last season. The senior was also adept at getting into the backfield where he recorded a team-high 11.5 tackles for loss. Flanking MCIntyre will be Chad Hunte and Tim Brandt, who combined for 88 total tackles in 2011.
The defensive front also has all four starters returning. Defensive tackle Charles Thompson is the leader after recording three sacks last season, the most by any defensive linemen on the team. The line will need to do a better job of creating pressure, with the team as a whole only recording 23 sacks in 2011.
The secondary is the only area that will need a replacement but with a deep pool to choose from, that shouldn't prove to be a problem. True freshmen Randall Jette will get the first crack at replacing the opening at cornerback. Senior strong safety Darren Thellen had 68 total tackles and team-highs in passes defended (5) and interceptions (5) last year.
Connecticut ranked just 108th in total yards nationally last season and is a team that won't make a ton of noise offensively. The Huskies won't take anyone by surprise this season with the bulk of the offensive load clearly going to running back Lyle McCombs. The sophomore is coming off a breakout freshman season when he rushed for 1,151 yards and 7 touchdowns, while earning a spot on the Freshman All-American team.
While the run game is certain to be a strength it is the passing game that has really hampered Connecticut offensively. Juco transfer Chandler Whitmer was given the nod as the starting quarterback. The redshirt sophomore went 18- for-27 for 187 yards in two touchdowns in the spring game and impressed head coach Paul Pasqualoni enough in the summer to earn the start.
Whitmer he will be learning the ropes along with his receivers, who are largely inexperienced. Nick Williams is the veteran as a senior but had only 11 catches last season. Sophomore Shakim Phillips, a transfer from Boston College, could be a force. All-Big East tight end Ryan Griffin (33 receptions, 499 yards) should have an even bigger role in the passing game as the receivers come along.
Just like the offense, Connecticut's defense found great strength in the run game last season, while failing to do so against the pass. The Huskies ranked 4th nationally (85.7 ypg) in rush defense, while ranking 113th (281.0 ypg) against the pass.
Nine starters will return from that squad and the hope is that a year of experience can improve an already strong defense.
The linebacking corps leads the way with a ton of experience and depth. Jory Johnson and Sio Moore are both entering their senior seasons and Yavin Smallwood will be the third starter after playing well as a freshman. Johnson led the trio with 97 tackles, while all three finished in the top 10 in the Big East in the category.
UConn's secondary will need a lot out of the four returning starters, most notably Blidi Wreh-Wilson, who played in only five games last season. Even though the Huskies struggled to stop teams from racking up huge passing totals, the defense did manage to create turnovers with a +8 turnover margin thanks to the 15 interceptions the team amassed.
The Huskies were very strong up front last season, but Kendall Reyes and Twyon Martin are now gone. Now the strength shifts to the ends, where Trevardo Williams and Jesse Joseph each return as starters. Williams is the real standout on the line, after recording a team-high 12.5 sacks last season.
There is obviously excitement surrounding the Massachusetts football program as it takes the step into the FBS. The Minutemen though were middle of the road in the FCS last season. Meanwhile, Connecticut came within one win of a bowl game last season and has the strength on defense that would cause trouble for more experienced offensive teams. Expect the Huskies to ruin the Minutemen's FBS debut.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Connecticut 37, Massachusetts 10
08/29 10:38:08 ET