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Know your Northwestern football opponent, Week 12: UMass

One if by ground, two if by air.

The final installment of our 2019 summer guide is the Know Your Opponent series. We’ll take you through Northwestern’s fall schedule week-by-week, outlining the strengths and weaknesses of each opponent and identifying some key players to look out for. The series serves as a way for us to evaluate and take stock of the team’s upcoming opponents.

For the first time ever, Northwestern University and the University of Massachusetts (UMass) will play football against each other! While a majority of UMass teams compete in the Atlantic 10, the football team is currently independent from a conference. Previously, the team was a member of the Mid-American Conference (MAC) from 2011-2015.

The Basics

Returning production: 43 percent, (Offense 40 percent, Defense 45 percent)

2018 record: 4-8

Coach: Walt Bell (1st season)

The Stats

The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly and Football Outsiders (and now ESPN!). You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.

2018 S&P+ Overall: 112th

2018 S&P+ Offense: 79th

2018 S&P+ Defense: 124th

2019 S&P+ Projection: 125th

2018 Capsule

Since transitioning into the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) in 2011, UMass posted its best record at 4-8 in 2018. Still, the team’s record was not good enough to qualify for a bowl game. After the season, head coach Mark Whipple was fired as he won just 16 games in his five seasons at UMass. Of his four victories last season, Charlotte was the most impressive win. Charlotte’s 118th S&P+ ranking last season was the best among the four teams UMass defeated in 2018.

In the Minutemen’s hardest game of the season at Georgia (ranked second in S&P+), the team lost 66-27. The team also lost 55-21 against rival Boston College (ranked 55th in S&P+), giving them a woeful point differential against Power Five opponents last season. The Minutemen finished the season on a high note by winning two of their final four games albeit against UConn and Liberty.

Offensive Overview

Head coach Walt Bell brings along a strong offensive background with him as he enters his first season in charge of the Minutemen. Last season, Bell was the quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator at Florida State. While the Seminoles struggled last season, Bell is an exciting young offensive guru with a solid coaching record. Before Florida State, he served as the quarterback coach and offensive coordinator for Maryland for a year, and he was in charge of the Arkansas State offense the season before that. Bell’s up-tempo offense helped lead Arkansas State to a Sun Belt title and New Orleans Bowl appearance.

Offensively, UMass does not return a lot of talent from last year. The Minutemen featured two different quarterbacks last season in Andrew Ford and Ross Comis. Neither return to the team this season, so UMass is in the midst of a five man QB competition. Beyond the quarterback situation, UMass lost wide receiver Andy Isabella, who was selected by the Arizona Cardinals in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft after amassing nearly 1,700 receiving yards last season. The team will also be without three of their starting offensive linemen from last season.

Coach Bell should bring a sense of excitement and optimism for this group., but he’ll certainly have his work cut out for him when it comes to replacing talent.

Defensive Overview

The Minutemen finished last season ranked as the 124th best defense in S&P+, allowing 42.9(!) points and nearly 500 total yards per game.

Things could also get worse before they get better for this group in 2019.

UMass will be without six of their top defensive players from last season. One of the biggest strengths for the Minutemen last season was their ability to stop inside runs (28th in stuff rate), but the team lost its primary run stopper in Bryton Barr who finished fifth in the FBS with 28.5 stuffs. Additionally, the team loses three starters in the secondary.

Overall, this defense will be tasked with building new chemistry together. The unit does return two key members of the front seven in defensive end Jake Byczko and outside linebacker Chinnedu Ogbonna. The program also landed former Penn State linebacker Jarvis Miller as a transfer.

Three Players to Know

QB Michael Curtis

Michael Curtis is currently the favorite to win the UMass quarterback competition. Last season, Curtis stepped in as the starter when their two other quarterbacks were injured. He led the team to a victory over Charlotte and has more playing experience than any other QB on the roster. Curtis completed 26 of 40 passes for 412 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions over five games last season.

OT Ray Thomas-Ishman Sr.

As the starting left tackle, Thomas-Ishman has a big responsibility in protecting his quarterback’s blind side. The senior tackle was named to Phil Steele’s preseason all-independent first team.

WR Sadiq Palmer

Given Andy Isabella’s loss, UMass will need to replace a lot of production at the wide receiver position. The speedy senior will be the main benefactor of Isabella’s loss. Palmer caught 28 balls for over 400 yards last season. Given Northwestern’s tendency to allow big days from fast wide receivers, the team will need to keep an extra eye on Palmer.