Kickoff: 6 p.m. EST, Saturday, August 26
Location: McGurk Alumni Stadium, Amherst, MA
TV: NESN Plus
Betting Line: UMass -2
Series Record: Hawaii 1-0
The college football season starts a week early for UMass fans, as the Minutemen play their first game of the season tomorrow against the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors. The game is a week earlier than the official Week 1 of college football, to help alleviate the harsh travel schedules of UMass, as an FBS independent, and Hawaii, which is located on an island in the middle of nowhere. Hawaii will be a good first test for the Minutemen, who are coming off a 2-10 season, but also return 14 starters for last year.
UMass’ passing game looks to be a strength this year, as quarterback Andrew Ford returns after throwing for 2665 yards and 26 touchdowns last season. Tight end and Ford’s former high school teammate Adam Breneman returns as well. A former Penn State five star recruit, Breneman is maybe the best tight end in the country and is poised for a huge year. Junior Andy Isabella and redshirt freshman Brennon Dingle gives Ford two explosive options outside as well.
The passing game will be key against Hawaii, as they had one of the worst secondaries in the FBS last year, and lose four of six starters from last year. If UMass’ O-line holds up, Ford and company could absolutely torch Hawaii. UMass has the makings of a dangerous run game as well. Junior Marquise Young returns to the backfield, coming off a campaign in which he nearly rushed for 1000 yards, at a clip of 4.5 yards per carry. His backup, sophomore Bilal Ally, showed promise during what little playing time he saw last year, averaging 5.7 yards per carry too.
UMass’ defense is more of a question mark, however. They hired a new defensive coordinator, Ed Pinkham, who previously held the same position at Western Michigan University. UMass’ defense last year ranked 108th in scoring defense, 99th in total defense, 99th in turnovers gained, and 126th in passes intercepted. In other words, they struggled a little bit. However, the Minutemen do return eight starters on defense, including redshirt senior inside lineback Steve Casali, who led UMass with 105 total tackles, and senior outside linebacker Da’Sean Downey, who led the team with eight sacks.
Pinkham definitely has some nice pieces to work with, such as Downey, Casali, and sophomore defensive back Isaiah Rodgers, so it seems likely he can bring at least some improvement to a defense that had the stopping power of a musket last season. The question that remains, though, is “how much?”.
Hawaii will certainly offer the Minutemen defense a stiff test to start the season. Quarterback Dru Brown and running back Diocemy Saint Juste make up one of the top backfields in the Mountain West, and much of Hawaii’s other offensive starters return. The Rainbow Warriors should serve as a good barometer for how this year’s defense compares to last year.
Coming into this season, the Minutemen are a tough team to get a read on. The pieces are certainly there for this team to make a big improvement on last year, but they’re still a team that went 2-10 last season. UMass fans(and this writer) will have a much clearer picture on what this team is, exactly, after Saturday.
This game has the makings of a high-scoring shootout that could go either way. However, I’m optimistic that the Minutemen will come out of the gate strong and start their season with a win. I predict that UMass will win, 35-29.