1. A wrecking crew. Who would have thought that five weeks after Baylor it would be time to ponder whether this is the best UB defense in the modern history of the program? But there are reasons. Many reasons. The unit has forced 16 turnovers, 10 of those in the last three games, to help elevate the Bulls to No. 2 nationally in turnover margin. Last week they produced the program’s first road shutout since 1965. They rank seventh in sacks with 11 players contributing. Two of their last three opponents were held under 40 yards rushing. They top the MAC in third-down conversion defense. The challenge for UMass today concerns the price the Minutemen are willing to pay to contain Khalil Mack. Recent opponents have tried of double- and triple-teams his way, opening the door for others to make plays. UMass has allowed just four sacks but rushed for only 783 yards. Can an improved offensive line withstand the pass-rush onslaught?
2. Dodging bullets. UMass’ defensive downfall has been its susceptibility to the big play. They’ve yielded 35 gains of 20 yards or longer and 10 of 30 yards or longer. Those explosions are undermining what has otherwise been improved play on the defensive side of the ball: Opponents have eight touchdowns on 18 trips into the red zone, a solid number particularly given an ambitious schedule that’s included Wisconsin, Kansas State and Vanderbilt. Junior MLB Stanley Andre is coming off a career-best 14 tackles against Miami and fifth-year senior DE Justin Anderson has team highs of three sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss.
3. Other options. Western Michigan made it a mission to neutralize UB wideout Alex Neutz last week. Bulls QB Joe Licata made them pay elsewhere, throwing TD passes to TE Mason Schreck and WR Fred Lee in addition to a late one to Neutz. Dispersal remains key for the Bulls moving forward, and the expectation is that true freshman wideout Boise Ross will continue to emerge. He had his first career catch against WMU, helping to set up a touchdown. UB’s MO will be to pound away, force UMass to overplay the run, then take some shots down field. Licata has gotten away with a couple of throws that could have been picked the last two weeks. His back-shoulder TD throw to Lee last week was a thing of technical beauty.
4. Changing signals. Mike Wegzyn was the UMass QB when the Bulls rallied to victory in Gillette Stadium last year. This season he’s given way to A.J. Doyle, a 6-3, 215-pound sophomore who’ll be making his fifth straight start. Doyle is coming off a 249-yard passing game that matched his career best, and he’s made ample use of his tight ends; the group accounts for about a third of the team’s catches. But his go-to guy is Tajae Sharpe, who’s caught 35 balls for 331 yards and three TDs. SO RB Jamal Wilson has been a major contributor since injuries led to playing time. He went for 20-119 against a stiff Bowling Green defense.
5. Extra points. All-time series tied 5-5 after UB rallied to 29-19 win in New England last year. … Bulls one win away from matching five-game win streak of 2008 title team. … Khalil Mack needs one sack to tie school career record and Branden Oliver needs 153 yards to tie school career rushing record. … Bulls are 7-3 since Licata took over at QB. … QB Zlex Zordich and LBs Blake Bean and Nick Gilbo are doubtful. … Tyler Grassman has produced eight touchbacks since taking over UB kickoff duties.
Outlook: Fledgling UMass program making progress but it’s not there yet. Envision big day for Oliver, who missed last year’s matchup. UB, 27-7.