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Opponent Q&A with Bennett Karoll

Going behind enemy lines for this week’s opponent preview involved asking some atypical questions.

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 05 UMass at FIU Photo by Samuel Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In a game that we have lovingly deemed the Malört Bowl, Northwestern (1-8, 0-7 Big Ten) will host the Massachusetts Minutemen (1-9), arguably the worst team in the FBS, this Saturday at 11:00 a.m. at Ryan Field.

To examine how UMass, who joined college football’s top level as an independent seven years ago, got to this point as a program, and to discuss whether they have any chance at competing this weekend (or, perhaps more importantly, covering the spread) we talked to UMass Basketball Podcast producer (yes, they talk about football too) and proud Massachusetts alum Bennett Karoll.

Without further ado, learn anything and everything you wanted to know about the Minutemen:

INU: Let’s get right to the elephant in the room: how bad is UMass football, exactly? Also, what are the biggest weaknesses on a team seemingly full of them?

BK: Ok they’re like really bad. Like... REALLY bad. They have no defensive ability. The best stat I can use to describe this is yards allowed per game. Not always the best stat, for various reasons, but it’s useful here. UMass is currently 130th out of 130 in the FBS in yards allowed per game with 575.2. That’s a lot, obviously. But hey, it’s college football, games get crazy, what’s the big deal? Well 129th, UL Monroe, is allowing 510.9 yards per game. I went looking down the list and I can’t find another gap bigger than like 4-5 yards until you get into the top 50. For the record, Northwestern is 31st in yards allowed per game.

The best thing I can say is some of the smarter members of #UMassTwitter have posited that top D-III teams could hand it to UMass right now. They have a problem with scholarships because of problems with coaches recruiting (see below).

INU: How did they get so bad?

BK: Lol. The ten million dollar question. So I was actually a freshman during UMass’ last year in the FCS and lemme tell you, it was bad from the start. The team was 5-6 but determined to play in the FBS. So 2 days after their final FCS game they fired their head coach and hired Notre Dame offensive coordinator Charley Molnar. He was, uh, really bad.

I produce a UMass Podcast where we interviewed one of his bigger recruits, and it’s worth a listen for just how bad it got, but basically he was in way over his head. He lasted two years and got two wins. He’s been the WR coach at Wyoming for five years since. The highlight of his tenure was when the team scored a touchdown as time expired to go down one point and he decided to go for 2 and lost. Or the time he iced his own kicker and lost. He also lost a lot of the alumni and boosters with an opening press conference about playing “big boy football,” ignoring the team’s recent FCS success (2008 FCS national runner-up).

They fired Charley and brought in Mark Whipple. Whip was the head coach of the UMass team that won the FCS or D-II or whatever it was back then title in 1998. He had NFL coaching experience with Pittsburgh and Philly and there was hope he’d turn it around. He almost did. The offense improved, Tajae Sharpe and Andy Isabella are the names you’ve heard of but guys like Blake Frohnapfel, Rob Blanchflower, Jean Sifrin and Adam Brenneman were all great offensive talents who, for various (mostly injury-related) reasons, never got an NFL shot.

Whip’s problem boiled down to play-calling and defense. His defensive recruiting at best wasn’t good and at worst was non-existent. His calls were always rough and his defense sometimes lacked but UMass had something like a 7-1 record against the spread against SEC opponents under him, hanging in and almost forcing OT with Vanderbilt (The Legend of Blake Lucas), Florida, and Mississippi State, but always coming up fruitless. I remember reading a stat one year that they were something like 23 points from bowl eligibility, but never got over the hump.

Whip was fired after last year and FSU OC Walt Bell was brought in. He’s had years of bad defense built up in the pipeline and it’s really blown up here. The team is struggling with basic tackling and it’s not clear what will change next year but it’s as bad now as it’s ever been for UMass in the FBS.

The other problem the team has is that they’re currently independent. After a four-year probationary period with the MAC, they were told if they wanted to stay in the conference for football they’d need to move all their sports over. For reasons that included the competition in basketball being lower at the time and their connection to the A-10, the team declined and went independent. And despite occasional rumors of C-USA or the Sun Belt having possible interest, they’ve remained that way since 2016.

INU: This team had Andy Isabella last year. Now that he is in the NFL, are there any other significant bright spots in this train wreck, like return man Isaiah Rodgers, who was the only player Pat Fitzgerald mentioned by name during Monday’s press conference?

BK: I mean yeah, Isaiah Rodgers is the guy on this team right now. RB Bilal Ally has averaged over 5 yards a carry but the leading receiver is a true freshman in Jermaine “OC” Johnson, with 284 yards.

The most notable player is punter George Georgopoulos because, well, his name is George Georgopoulos.

INU: Do you think the long term destination for the Minutemen, now that they are struggling so mightily as an independent, is the FCS? How do you see the next few years playing out for them?

BK: I still have hope for the team to catch on eventually. I probably shouldn’t at this point, but what else am I gonna do? I don’t think the FCS is in the plans at all, though. UMass’ current AD Ryan Bamford has worked hard to improve just about every other sport (UMass hockey leggo) but football success has still evaded him.

The plan I’ve always had personally is that if the basketball team gets good for a few years they can drag the football program into a bigger conference with them, but it remains to be seen whether hoops will do enough for that strategy to work out. Independence won’t continue to work for a team that is struggling this much.

INU: Finally, is there a scenario in which you can envision an upset happening here? What is your score prediction?

BK: Listen. I know the sky is falling and Northwestern is terrible but like... UMass is only “better” than Akron because they beat the Zips at home by 8. That’s all that is separating them from the bottom of the FBS. I understand how bad Northwestern is. This won’t be close. And yet... maybe? Idk, crazier things have happened. Instant firing if NU does lose, though.

As for a prediction, I covered this in a tweet (follow me for decent White Sox and Bears Tweets, seriously) but it goes like this: UMass fans will bet NU -39. NU fans will bet UMass +39. Northwestern will win 46-7. No one will win money. Everyone will be disappointed.