After a trip across the pond to Ireland, Boston College returns home to the United States and the comfort of Massachusetts - sort of.
A week after playing their game in Dublin, the Eagles play an official road game at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough against the UMass Minutemen. It’s the renewal of acquaintances between the only two FBS teams in the Commonwealth, and it’s the first time they’ll meet since BC invaded Gillette two years ago.
In 2014, Boston College opened the Tyler Murphy era at Gillette in the hot summer sun. With Eagles fans outnumbering Minutemen faithful by a large number, a pseudo-home game allowed BC to work on their chemistry in what was dubbed the “Battle of the Bay State.”
Leading just 6-0 at halftime, BC used their physical size and overall athleticism to wear down UMass, pummeling them in the second half en route to a 30-7 final drubbing.
Let’s meet the 2016 Minutemen, a very different incarnation from when BC met them two years ago.
School: University of Massachusetts at Amherst
Recommended Blog: Fight Massachusetts
Conference Affiliation: None
Date of Game: September 10, 2016
Location: Foxborough, Massachusetts
Head Coach: Mark Whipple, 3rd Year (9th overall at school)
When Mark Whipple took over the Massachusetts program in 2014, he did so knowing there were rough waters ahead. The two great experiments of the school’s transition to FBS - Charley Molnar and the Mid-American Conference - were abject failures. The program faced opposition from within about their move to FBS, and the long, harsh reality of becoming a paycheck program was the immediate future.
Three years into his second stint, there’s a glimmer of hope. Whipple now has a bulk of his own players in the pipeline, and this year’s team will be the first comprised of players entirely recruited to play at the FBS level. In addition, the team is extricated from the MAC, a conference it probably never should’ve joined in the first place.
UMass is finally out from underneath the burden of guaranteed games at Gillette Stadium. After this year, they’ll be able to play the bulk of their home games back in Amherst with select big games moved back east.
But the future is still full of unknown hurdles for UMass. The program is an FBS Independent, which is unsustainable for a long-term future. They’re still a paycheck program, a team that collects big checks to get pasted by the likes of Florida.
They’re clearly a program in transition, but there’s some hope for a long-term success. For a coach like Whipple, who won three conference championships and a national title in his first stint at UMass, that’s fantastic news in the uphill battle for FBS success.
When it comes to Whipple himself, he’s an offensive wizard who led a renaissance at UMass. Under Molnar, the Minutemen ranked dead last (124th in 2012) and fourth-to-last (123rd in 2013) in total offense. Whipple improved the team to 71st overall in his first year, then kept them at 81st overall this past season. While the defense was sorely lacking at times, he’s the type of coach who will have the team ready, willing, and capable on the offensive side of the ball.
2015 Season: 3-9 (2-6 Mid-American Conference)
Recapping the 2015 season
Despite all of their struggles, UMass somehow managed to never finish dead last in the MAC. Under Molnar, they finished sixth in the seven-team East Division in ‘12 and ‘13, then improved to tie for fourth place in Whipple’s first year. Last year, they might’ve finished tied with two other teams for last in the East, but they were substantially better than the league’s worst team.
The Minutemen had what amounted to two paycheck games on their schedule, losing at Colorado, 48-14, in the second leg of their home-and-home series, then lost two weeks later at Notre Dame Stadium, 62-27.
UMass actually hung with Notre Dame for the better part of the first half of that game, trailing only 21-20 late in the quarter. But the Fighting Irish rattled off two touchdowns in the last 3:21, including a DeShone Kizer pass to Chris Brown with six seconds left, to go into the locker room with the Minutemen trailing, 35-20. 27 second half points later, that was that.
Those losses bookend a 25-23 loss to Temple where the Minutemen coughed up the win in the game’s final minutes. Down 20-17, UMass scored a touchdown with 1:20 left to take a 23-20 lead. But the extra point was blocked, then promptly returned the entire length of the field for two Owl points. Instead of kicking off with a 24-20 lead, UMass led only by one, and a 32-yard field goal with seven seconds left gave Temple their win.
Unfortunately, the encouraging start to the year (which included a 24-14 win over FIU) never really came to fruition. UMass lost their next five games, including a 17-13 defeat at Gillette Stadium with only 6,200 or so fans in attendance. They did manage, however, to win two of their final three games, including a 31-26 win at Buffalo on the season’s final day to prevent the Bulls from being bowl eligible.
Preseason Excitement Level: 6/10
For some reason, the 2016 game against UMass feels substantially different from the 2014 game against UMass.
To me, the ‘14 game was about sending a statement. That year, UMass fans needed to be reminded that their team had a long, long, long way to go if they wanted to compete at a level commensurate with the ACC. I think the game accomplished that because they’ve really started to make the right strides, which I’ve talked about and which I’ll talk about again as we get closer to kickoff.
The game this year feels different, and I think much of that hinges on what happens in Ireland. If BC beats Georgia Tech, this game should become a walkthrough to get meaningful reps, work on chemistry, pick up a win - just like it wound being two years ago. If BC loses, the Eagles can send a statement to everyone else by pummeling UMass.
I’m a little wary of the game’s placement; coming off of jet lag from Ireland, BC has to play this game before they head to Virginia Tech. Those are two big conference games sandwiched around the UMass game. Plus with UConn on the schedule, the majority of the local, regional hate from BC fans is being directed elsewhere.
Any concern about BC’s return from a road trip, though, should be belied by UMass coming home from Florida. The Minutemen have a number of games this year against Power-5 teams, and they head to The Swamp in Gainesville before returning home to play BC. BC might be coming in with jet lag, but where that’s Florida’s opener (and at home), UMass could conceivably be coming home in substantially worse condition.
But that doesn’t change that this is UMass. This is the team that announced it wanted to take over the state and make a run at what you currently have. This is the team whose fans will chirp on Twitter about your struggles - even though their team isn’t exactly the next coming of Alabama. This is a team against whom BC needs to show exactly why an ACC team is an ACC team. It might not feel big now, but it will - especially during game week.