AMHERST — Get used to it.
For now, UMass just isn't competitive with the teams on its schedule, and Saturday's 62-28 loss to Coastal Carolina was another example of it.
The Minutemen drop to 0-4, and prospects of any wins this season seem dim. Coastal, even with a win over Kansas under its belt, is not exactly a Football Bowl Subdivision power, and did not struggle to put this one away by halftime.
"It's obviously very difficult for everyone in our organization, not just myself," first-year coach Walt Bell said. "Knowing that there are a bunch of kids in the locker room that are trying to give us what we ask them. The fact that we're not able to put them in a position to get a (positive) result, it's brutal. It's a brutal deal, and it's hard, but there's only one way out. That's to work hard, keep doing everything we can as a coaching staff, as a football team, from strength and conditioning to training. Every aspect of our program, we've got to find a way to improve and get better. Our heart, more than anything, hurts for those kids in that locker room, and we need to find a way to get better."
In a familiar refrain to the 2019 season, UMass was smaller, slower, and weaker in almost every positional matchup. Of the eight defensive linemen listed on the UMass depth chart, seven are either freshmen or sophomores (defensive end Jake Byczko is a junior), and not all are even scholarship players.
Even on plays when the UMass defense played its assignments right on one of the many Coastal option runs, the Minutemen were not quick enough to finish the play or make the tackle. The result was a Coastal rushing attack that piled up 334 yards and six touchdowns. Chanticleers quarterbacks Fred Payton, Bryce Carpenter, and Grayson McCall had open receivers to throw to and ample time to find them, completing 24-of-27 passes for 302 yards, three touchdowns, and an interception.
UMass briefly had momentum early with a Bilal Ally 5-yard touchdown run to tie it at 7 with 3:52 to play in the first quarter. It was set up by a Tyris Lebeau interception deep in Coastal territory.
After another Coastal touchdown, UMass pulled to within 21-14 on another Ally 5-yard rush with 6:28 to play in the half.
That was as close the Minutemen got the rest of the way, though, as the wheels fell off from there. Coastal scored touchdowns on its next three possessions and never punted in the first half.
The game was effectively over by then, but the question becomes how many will be before they even start? This is not a team that has the talent, experience, or depth to compete, and Bell badly needs to stock the shelves with players who can.
That will take time. The 2020 recruiting class is — by UMass standards — highly rated by most of the services that keep track of that. But in a situation like the Minutemen are in, those players are probably going to have to play before they're ready. That's currently the case, and it shows.
Most of Bell's job is to identify those recruits, get them on campus, coach the ones already there, and get the most out of them. However, maybe his biggest task is keeping the morale up in the face of what looks to be a season without wins.
"That's what halftime was about for us," said Bell, whose team trailed, 42-14, at the break. "Halftime, for us, was really about making sure that we do and act that we say we're going to do: and that's relentlessly positive; and that's being supportive of our teammates; never being out of the fight; making sure that we play every play as hard as we can possibly play it.
"There are moments and times where I think that we do that, and again, I think that's just general, overall, program development. That's somewhere where we have to improve, especially in the face of not getting the results that we want. We've got to make sure that, everything around our program, we're doing everything we can, we're coaching every detail as positive as we can, showing the kids 'the why,' and making sure those kids are invested, because that's what this game's about. This game's about the 18-to-21-year-olds. It's not about us. We've got to ensure that those kids are still confident, still playing hard, still trying to improve on a daily basis."
There were bright spots, and mostly coming from the expected places. Isaiah Rodgers was terrific on kickoff returns. His 27-yarder in the third quarter set the all-time mark for most in UMass history. He followed that with a 75-yard return after another Coastal touchdown and finished with 239 on the day.
Bell lauded the senior's leadership in the face of adversity.
"Isaiah has done a really nice job for us," Bell said. "He really has. . . . Whatever we ask him to do, he's begging us to get back in the game on (special) teams. He's begging to go in there and return kicks. Trying to stay in there on defense. He made an effort play to chase a guy down from behind to make (the Chanticleers) snap it one more time.
"So he's done a really nice job for us. Especially as a senior, with where we are, with our record right now being 0-4, just to see him continue to fight and represent himself well and really try and move this program forward is a big testament to him."
"I just think that's the message here from coach Bell," Rodgers said. "That's all (the coaching staff) teaches, just keep playing hard, keep our heads up, keep playing very smart. When you come off the field, you have players tapping you on the head like, 'Come on, keep your head up!' I saw a few players actually pull someone aside and tell them to pick their head up. We just feel like we're changing the culture around here, and that's what we want."
Ally made some nice runs when he had space. Randall West came on in relief of starter Andrew Brito and led two touchdown drives. The first culminated in a 30-yard scoring toss to Brennon Dingle, the other a 23-yarder to Zak Simon.
The second cut the deficit to 62-28. On the ensuing return, kicker Cooper Garcia made a big hit on the sideline to fire up his teammates.
It was maybe a little strange to see that much enthusiasm with the game so out of hand, but at this point, for the Minutemen, you take those little bits of positivity and run with them.
"It's great," West said of Garcia's hit. "It's what we need. The coaching staff always talks about bringing life, bringing energy. Don't be an energy vampire. The more guys that we can get that are like that, the more this program will succeed in the future: next week, two weeks from now, three weeks from now, a year from now, two years from now. The more guys that get involved in this program in a positive way will affect this program in the right way and move this thing in a positive, upward direction."
"I feel very positive about (the rest of the season)," Rodgers said. "We still have eight games left. Feel pretty positive."