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UMASS Minutemen surge past Fordham Rams to advance in Championship Series, 49-35
Amherst, MA - With his team fresh off a touchdown for a 42-35 lead with less than nine minutes remaining, UMass LB Charles Walker intercepted a John Skelton pass to put his offense in scoring position at the Fordham twenty-two. It didn’t take long before RB Matt Lawrence scored from two yards out on a sweep to the left to extend and finalize the Minuteman lead, 49-35, to advance UMass to the quarterfinals of the College Football Championship Subdivision. The Rams, champions of the Patriot League, finished their 2007 season at 8-4 overall. In the tradition of Thanksgiving weekend playoff football for CollegeFootballFan.com, it was another exciting, competitive contest. We hope to attend at least one more game before the championship games of the three playoff divisions.
Massachusetts drove sixty-three yards to pay dirt on its first series when QB Liam Coen (24 of 37, school record 419 passing yards, 4 TDs) faked play action right and tossed a seven-yard TD pass to TE Ian Jorgensen all alone for the Minutemen’s first score. PK Chris Koepplin connected on his first of seven PATs for the early 7-0 UMass lead. On the next possession for the Colonial Athletic Association champion, Coen connected with Rasheed Rancher (8 catches for 196 yards) on a 36-yard pass play to the two. From there, RB Matt Lawrence (31 rushes for 167 yards, 3 TDs) took it around the right end for a 14-0 lead. UMass, co-champ of the toughest Championship Division Conference in college football with five entries in this year’s tournament, looked like it would dominate the Patriot League’s only entry. However, on a punt, Fordham faked a snap over the punter’s head and the blocking back Nick Magiera took the snap thirty-eight yards to the UMass thirty-six. QB John Skelton (25 of 46, 1 INT, 3 TDs and 281 yards) completed a 31-yard catch and run play to WR Asa Lucas (8 catches for 107 yards) down to the three-yard line. With :55 left in the period, Skelton jumped up over the pile and extended his arms over the goal line for Fordham’s first score. PK Adam Danko’s PAT made the score, 14-7. The Rams would continue to fight back throughout the entire game.
P Ben Dato lofted a high punt that UMass lost in the bright sun and seemed to have UMass supposedly pinned down on their own one-yard line. On the next play, Coen got his team out of the hole with a long pass to J.J. Moore (8 catches for 115 yards). The Minutemen proceeded to drive to the Ram twelve. From there, Rasheed Rancher made a diving catch of a spot pass in the end zone. The Minutemen were ahead again by two touchdowns, 21-7. A partial block of a U of M punt from the twenty-three later gave Fordham possession on the UMass thirty-five. The Rams had to pull out all stops again when Skelton connected with RB David Moore on a slant pass over the middle on fourth and nine to pick up a first down at the Massachusetts eight. Play action got the UMass defense off balance and Skelton connected with TE Cody Kritzer for a three-yard TD pass to cut the score to 21-14 with 2:46 remaining. The half was far from over. A short, high Fordham kick was returned to the Ram forty-one. From there, Coen connected with Rancher streaking across the middle. He turned the corner and raced down the left sideline for a quick, forty-one yard catch and run touchdown to regain a fourteen-point lead for the home team, 28-14. With 2:20 left in the half, Fordham started a series but went three and out, punting the ball back to UMass who took over on their own ten. Coen completed a long pass to Rancher once again, but Ram DB Kenni Thompson caused a fumble and picked it up to return to the UMass twenty-seven. An unsportsmanlike call against UMass gave Fordham a first down at the eighteen with :54 left. A chorus of “boos” followed the play as UMass fans insisted the fumble was caused by the ground. Despite TV coverage, no replays were reviewed in this Subdivision Championship game. An eighteen-yard completion to WR Jason Caldwell from Skelton also came loose, but the refs insisted the play was dead, and the “boos” got louder as the Rams had a first down at the six-inch mark. Skelton plowed in behind his right guard for the score as the half came to an end. Danko’s extra point brought the Rams back to within 28-21 after great effort. U of M Head Coach Don Brown and his Fordham counterpart Tom Masella both had things to say to the officials as their teams ran off to the locker rooms while the “boos” continued to escalate at the end of the first half.
The Minuteman Marching Band put on an entertaining halftime performance. They chanted, danced, sang, and accompanied a rock band that played some Gloria Estefan tunes. The band stood in as UMass’s primary cheering section this day as most of the student body was in absentia due to the long, Thanksgiving Day weekend. The attendance was a paltry 5,224 for the playoff game which was well below the season average of about 12,000 per game. Most fans including CollegeFootballFan.com sat on the visitor’s side. We overheard a conversation between some locals in the ticket line that they were going to sit on the obligatory home side during the first half and move to the visitors’ side in the second as the press box shadow would cover the home side in the second half making it much colder. We opted for the visitors’ side for the whole game as did many UMass fans. With both schools sporting Maroon as the primary team color, it was hard to discern UMass from Fordham faithful throughout the stadium. The visitors side wallowed in the sun for most of the game, but for a late November fall weekend, better football weather would be hard to come by. The noon game weather started off bright, sunny, and cool with no wind to speak of. It was a great day to watch a game. Too bad the students from the Amherst campus missed this one. Also at the half, the “Official 2007 Football Championship Program” sold by the NCAA was perused. It contains all team playoff rosters, brackets, national ads, championship history, and playoff records. Records indicate that we’ve attended three games which still have records that stand today. In 2002, we saw PK Matt Fordyce of Fordham kick five FGs against Northeastern in their 29-24 first round victory. His mark was tied a year later by Justin Lagan of Western Illinois. In 2000, we saw Jay Heibel of Lehigh punt four times against Delaware for a 54.5 yard average that day in his team’s 47-22 opening round loss. In 1985, we saw Rhode Island’s TE Tony DiMaggio catch four TD passes against Akron in his team’s opening round win, 35-27, in a very memorable game. In 1996, some guy from Marshall named Randy Moss tied him for the record.
To start the third period, Fordham wasted no time to tie the score with a drive starting from its own thirty-one. A flare pass to WR Richar Rayborn, who took it in from nineteen yards out down the right sideline, made it 28-28 to show that the Rams weren’t backing down easily to the seventh-ranked team in the country. UMass wasn’t about to let up either. After a touchback on the ensuing kickoff, the Minutemen drove the length of the field culminating with a 33-yard swing pass to FB Chris Zardas who took it in down the right side also to regain a 35-28 lead. UMass next held Fordham to three and out to force a punt. The Minutemen started a drive from their own thirty-one getting down to the Fordham three. On third and goal at the four, Coen pitched to Lawrence who attempted an option pass that was tipped into the air and intercepted by LB James Crockett who was tackled at the two. A critical interference call against UMass kept the ensuing Fordham drive alive to eventually put the Rams on the UMass eleven.
The Fordham possession continued into the final period. Skelton dropped back, tripped, scrambled, and rolled out before he connected with WR Sylvester Clarke to cap the 98-yard drive and knot the score once again. At 35-35, the Minutemen came right back. An 83-yard drive resulted in Matt Lawrence’s 13-yard TD run over the right side of the line to regain the seven-point lead, 42-35. It was Walker’s pick of Skelton’s pass on the following Fordham possession that sealed the game resulting in Lawrence’s third TD for the 49-35 final score. The Rams couldn’t respond in the waning minutes, and finished their season with an overall record of 8-4.
The 10-2 Minutemen head to Carbondale, IL next Saturday to face fourth-seeded Southern Illinois (11-1) who defeated 8-4 Eastern Illinois. CollegeFootballFan.com hopes for a UMass win over the Salukis and for an upset bid by Delaware over top-rated Northern Iowa. Wins by both would probably result in a semi-final round to be played in Amherst where we’d like to see the two eastern powers square off. With UMass students back on campus, Warren McGuirk Alumni Stadium’s 17,000 seats will be easily filled. It would be a difficult ticket to get none-the-less. In the meantime, we have a tentative plan to see a D-III quarterfinal game when Mary Hardin-Baylor of Texas visits Wesley in Dover, DE, but a potential family obligation may persist. We’ll see!
Extra Points: McGuirk Stadium is in a beautiful setting set in a valley surrounded by tree-lined hills. With the late starting fall, many trees still have remnants of remaining leaves indicating that it must be a picturesque setting during peak season. At this point, we’ve attended games in six of twelve CAA stadiums. We hope to add a few more next season (William & Mary and maybe Maine or UNH).
A Minuteman Color Guard accompanies the band for the national anthem – pretty good! The PA system in McGuirk is horrible. It crackles and is barely audible on the visitors’ side.
Fordham’s early game plan was to throw short passes to receivers on slant patterns over the middle, but when they abandoned that on the third series they started to move the ball. Later in the game, that play call broke for critical yards to Moore on fourth and nine. We might have to consider attending a game in the Bronx next year as the Rams play pretty good ball and have a lot of key players returning. Credit Head Coach Tom Masella for attracting some good football players to come from towns far away to play football in The Bronx, NY. Skelton hails from El Paso, TX. Other Texans including his TE brother dot the roster. Players from Georgia, Florida, California, Arizona, and Illinois mix in with the talent from the metropolitan area and the northeast in general.
Former Fordham Coach Dave Clawson, whom we saw coach the Rams playoff game in 2002, still continues a successful career. His Richmond Spiders, the CAA co-champ with UMass, won their first round contest yesterday with a win over 8-3 Eastern Kentucky, 31-14. His team in Virginia next hosts Wofford who upset #3 Montana in the opening round (road trip potential for CFF?). Clawson succeeds as a coach wherever goes. We watch to see if his name comes up for any of the opening Bowl Division vacancies (Baylor or Kentucky comes to mind).
The CAA finished a “respectable” 3-2 over the opening weekend. Aside from wins by Massachusetts and Richmond, Delaware clobbered in-state rival Delaware State, 44-7, who got their wish for a game that UD was supposedly ducking forever. James Madison fell to defending national champ Appalachian State, 28-27. Did Michigan make the playoffs? New Hampshire lost to #1 seed Northern Iowa, 38-35, in Cedar Rapids. UMass defeated the Wildcats two weeks ago, 27-7. Any reason to believe the Minutemen, who made it to the semi-finals last season, can’t get past NIU?
The female UMass cheerleaders do some of the weakest push-ups ever seen after touchdowns, and we’re talking well before their team tallied even close to 49 points. To their credit though at least they tried compared to the three male cannoneers who fire off three miniature cannons after each UMass score. As the girls struggle, the boys lie on their backs and “bench-press” air. Maybe push-up capabilities should be criteria for being a Minuteman cannoneer. Girls, you need a strength coach. I’ll get back to you after I complete my weight-training certification!