AMHERST — All UMass coach Mark Whipple wanted was a spark, and his defense created one in the fourth quarter of its contest against Old Dominion on Saturday afternoon.
Old Dominion, which was leading, 10-7, marched 93 yards on 16 plays to the UMass 1. It was there, with 12:12 remaining in the fourth quarter, that defensive tackle Ali Ali-Musa and his unit stood their ground on the next three plays, eventually pushing Monarchs running back Jeremy Cox back from the 1 on fourth down.
But the Minutemen offense struggled to move the ball all afternoon, and less than a minute later Old Dominion offense regained possession at the UMass 34. This time, the Minutemen couldn’t slow the Monarchs.
Quarterback Jordan Hoy scampered into the end zone from 7 yards out, solidifying a 17-7 victory as UMass stumbled in front of a crowd of 9,028 at McGuirk Alumni Stadium.
“The defense played well enough to win, and the offense just shot themselves in the foot,” said Whipple.
A year after conceding 524 yards in a 36-16 loss to the Monarchs, the UMass defense arrived ready for the challenge. Minutemen defensive end Da’Sean Downey (eight tackles) and Ali-Musa (career-high 15 tackles) set the tone on the opening snap, combining to drop Blake LaRussa, one of two Monarchs quarterbacks to see action, for a 5-yard loss.
After limiting Old Dominion to a field goal on the opening drive, UMass (0-3) held the visitors to 69 yards on their next four possessions. Old Dominion finally found the end zone with a minute left in the first half. LaRussa’s 2-yard lob to Jonathan Duhart capped a nine-play, 86-yard drive and sent the visitors into halftime with a 10-0 lead.
The inclusion of tight end Adam Breneman (lower body injury), who Whipple said would be a game-time decision, offered quarterback Andrew Ford a potent target. But after registering 18 catches for a whopping 305 receiving yards in the first two games, Breneman tallied only three receptions for 18 yards. It didn’t help that Ford struggled to find time to throw — he was sacked eight times. Ford was 21-of-32 passing for 236 yards and one touchdown. Ross Comis also saw some time under center, going 1 of 4 for 17 yards.
“It’s tough to get into a rhythm,” said Ford. “I took some sacks today that I shouldn’t have and it kind of put us behind the chains. When you’re behind the chains like we were today, it’s tough to get anything going.”
UMass wide receiver Andy Isabella (five receptions, 105 yards, one touchdown) provided a lift 36 seconds into the second half. With Old Dominion defensive tackle Miles Fox bearing down, Ford fired a pass across the middle to Isabella, who scampered across midfield and into the end zone on a 60-yard score that pulled the Minutemen within 3.
The scene felt all too familiar to Whipple.
“We’ve done that three times now,” said Whipple. “Scored a touchdown coming out of halftime, it’s a one-possession game, it’s a field goal game. We went back and forth and got the ball to the 40-yard line, and punted it down to the 5 and the momentum was ours.”
Then Old Dominion (2-0) nearly sucked the life out of UMass.
Starting on their 3, Hoy orchestrated a 96-yard, 16-play drive that drained 7 minutes, 40 seconds off the clock. But Ali-Musa and linebacker Jarell Addo burst through the Monarchs’ offensive line on the fourth-and-goal play, halting Cox in his tracks. The goal-line stand presented Comis an opportunity to lift a stagnant UMass offense.
Running back Bilal Ally moved the pile forward 2 yards on first down. But Comis missed Breneman on the next two plays, forcing the Minutemen to punt from their end zone.
“Unfortunately, we weren’t able to do anything with that,” Ford said of the goal-line stand. “The defense played great today. This is on the offense. This is on me. Ali and his guys did an unbelievable job today.”
The short field presented ODU with a golden opportunity. Hoy’s touchdown nine plays later sealed the win, and now the Minutemen’s search for a win continues on the road.
Their slate doesn’t get any easier; they take on Temple on Friday before traveling to Tennessee on Sept. 23.Nick Ironside can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.