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Weekly Kickoff: UMass - Battle for the Bay State

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NCAA FOOTBALL: OCT 15 Louisiana Tech at UMass Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Seven years can be a long time in college football.

On this week in 2014, UMass was fairly new to their FBS experience and getting set to host Boston College at Gillette Stadium. They sponsored an omnipresent ad campaign around the Boston area boosting the “battle for the Bay State.” If you were in town at that time, it was impossible to escape the 6-8 weeks of promotion.

UMass had a pep rally in downtown Boston, had rented out the side of seemingly every bus and trash can in the city, and while it feels like a distant memory now, there was plenty of suggestion that UMass would use this as a launching pad to a run of 30K+ crowds at Gillette, becoming “Massachusetts’ team,” and eventually competing with BC for wins.

On the other side, Steve Addazio was still in the honeymoon phase in year 2 of his rebuild, coming off a surprisingly solid 7-win 2013 season.

The “Battle for the Bay State” ultimately wasn’t much of a contest, with BC flattening UMass 30-7 in front of 30,479 — about triple the size of any other crowd for a UMass game at Gillette that year.

The following year wasn’t much better, with UMass averaging less than 10K fans at Gillette, and by the time the 2016 BC-UMass game came around - another pretty easy 26-7 BC win in front of 25,112 - it was clear that the Minutemen were not long for Gillette Stadium.

Now in 2021, UMass is done playing games at Gillette, hosting their home games on campus in Amherst while trying to make life work as an FBS independent.

It feels a little odd to see BC play UMass at Mcguirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst, but that if anything adds maybe a little intrigue to what would otherwise feel like a pretty straightforward affair.

I’ll be honest - while I never thought UMass’s FBS football move would work out, especially not at Gillette Stadium (much like UConn discovered, there is not some massive untapped market out there of people who really want to go see college football in New England but not BC), I didn’t think it would be quite this bad.

UMass carries a 12-game losing streak and a 1-16 run in their last 17 into this matchup. BC’s next scheduled game against UMass is a home contest at Alumni Stadium in 2025, and you do have to wonder if that game will end up happening, or, if it does, if it will be an FBS vs. FCS matchup.

While “It could be worse” is never a great way to benchmark aspirations, the fate of UMass, UConn, and to some extent even Northeast Corridor programs like Temple and Rutgers, indicates that even through plenty of frustration, what BC has in the Northeast is a bit of a unicorn.

Due to some combination of having an established history, building an on-campus stadium that suits FBS football (it’s hard to overstate how important this decision was - I think if BC went the Foxboro route rather than enhancing Alumni, they’d be in the pits now), and getting an early jump on the conference realignment warz in the mid-2000s, BC has managed to be a continually, largely competitive FBS program - the only team in the region to do so (I’m counting Penn State as being in its own weird world rather than the Northeast for purposes of this discussion).

BC is favored by 38 for this week’s matchup, and while it’s always tricky to go on the road and what is still somewhat of a “rivalry” situation, this is a game BC fans will expect to be another tuneup.

Game Facts:

Boston College at UMass
Saturday, September 11, 2021
3:30 PM - NESN+ in New England, streaming on FloSports outside of New England

UMass record: 0-1

All-time BC vs. UMass record: 22-5-1

UMass storylines:

  • Hit me with your best shot: I don’t really know what the “best shot” is of this UMass team, but you have to figure BC will be hit with it on Saturday. It will almost certainly be UMass’s biggest crowd of the year, and they’ll want to put their best foot forward and empty the playbook for this game.

Last week, UMass was only able to put up 7 points against Pitt, a continuation of last year’s struggles in which the Minuteman offense put up an average of 2.5 points per game over 4 games against Georgia Southern, Marshall, FAU, and Liberty. A few of the (bad) UMass teams pre-Walt Bell’s arrival in 2019 at least brought some pretty good offense to the table but that’s fallen off big time in the last few years - they will certainly need to reverse that trend to keep up with a BC team that will be expected to put up points against any team they play this year.

  • Tyler Lytle growing into the QB role: Much of UMass’s hopes of turning around their offense this year were invested in transfer QB Tyler Lytle, who came in to the Minutemen after serving as a backup for Colorado. Week one’s returns were... not great. Lytle finished 14-for-31 with 167 yards of passing in his UMass debut.

At his best, Lytle can use his 6’5’’ frame and strong arm to be an effective pro-style QB. He was a three-star recruit out of California as a high schooler, but since arriving at Colorado in 2017 saw extremely limited action. He’s a veteran with a strong enough pedigree that he should be an upgrade at QB for UMass, but that was not on display in week 1.

What I’m watching for from BC this week:

  • A crisper start: Look, there’s nothing to really complain about when you win 51-0, and like we wrote about last week, you can’t really take much either way from a game against Colgate. But if there’s one thing you can tangibly say BC needs to improve upon from last week, it’s getting off to a faster start. BC had some drops and some timing issues in the first quarter and ultimately only led 7-0 after one. In this game, it would be nice to see the offense get cranking right away, pull away early, and give the second-team offense more than one quarter to get in reps.
  • Can BC gash UMass on the ground?: It’s tough to pick one part of UMass’s game that was weakest last season but run defense is certainly up there, with the Minutemen getting torched on the ground by Georgia Southern and Liberty for 300+ yards each. We know Phil Jurkovec can throw, and we know he has an array of guys to throw it to. It would be nice to see BC also be able to really boss around UMass in the running game and let 2 or more guys begin to stand out as reliable options heading in to ACC play.
  • Injuries and special teams: Marcus Valdez and Aaron Bouhmeri were among the guys out injured last week, and this week we’ll check in with Jeff Hafley’s press conferences to see if there are updates on their return. Bouhmeri’s absence was felt as BC missed an extra point in the game; the Eagles also suffered a delay of game penalty for a kickoff out of bounds. No big deal in the early going, but those kinds of plays will be vital in ACC games, so it would be good to see those sharpened up.
  • Some benchmarks: You can’t really take much positive or negative away from a game against Colgate. That’s somewhat true for UMass, too, but at least they are an FBS team, and there’s also something to benchmark this against — Pitt just played UMass, and we saw what they were able to do. The defense totally sealed up the Minutemen, limiting them to just 42 rushing yards. Pitt’s offense was pretty much able to move at will, only having to punt twice. This will be what we’d want to benchmark against, and expect to see BC able to do something similar.

What to watch for on BCI this week:

BCI writers will continue to monitor health and depth chart updates from Jeff Hafley throughout the week, and will take a look at UMass on each side of the ball to get you ready for Saturday.

Go Eagles!