University of Massachusetts head coach Charley Molnar directs his Minutemen during the first football practice of the 2013 season Monday at McGuirk Stadium in Amherst. KEVIN GUTTING
AMHERST — A year ago at Michigan, the University of Massachusetts fell to the traditional Big Ten power 63-13.
It was not a pleasant result for coach Charley Molnar, but he hoped playing in front of over 100,000 fans would be valuable for his team Saturday when they head to Wisconsin for a noon game at Camp Randall Stadium (capacity: 80,321). It is both teams’ season opener.
Wisconsin is ranked No. 23 and coming off an 8-6 season that included a third straight trip to the Rose Bowl.
“Any time you get a chance to play a Big Ten team it’s awfully exciting for the young men. I think our team is going to be better prepared for that type of environment than we were a year ago,” Molnar said. “Playing at Michigan was a great experience for our guys. Now I think they’re more used to it. We played three games last year in front of fairly large crowds. I think the wide-eyed look will be gone this year.”
The Minutemen will get $900,000 to play the Badgers, but Molnar said the benefits of playing Wisconsin are more than financial.
“I know it’s going to get loud and we’re going to play an awfully good football team, but that’s what we’re trying to do,” Molnar said. “Measure ourselves against the best team in the country.”
Junior linebacker Stanley Andre didn’t think the Minutemen would be fazed by it.
“If a stadium has one person or 500,000, it doesn’t matter who you’re playing in front of. We’re playing for each other. We’re playing for our teammates, for UMass as a whole and the program as a whole. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing in front of. We’re just here to play a football game,” he said. “But it’s definitely an experience playing in front of a lot of people. It’s something to cherish.”
A year ago, Shane Huber was preparing for his senior year at St. Peter’s Prep in New Jersey, while Steve Casali was preparing to lead Long Island’s Sachem East.
Now at UMass, both linebackers are expected to see action as true freshmen Saturday.
“That’s every young football player’s dream, running out of the tunnel with 80,000 to a 100,000 ripping and roaring in the stands,” Huber said. “I’m really excited. I can’t wait. I’m slotted on kickoff coverage and kick return. So I’ll be on the field either way for the first play of the game.”
Casali echoed the sentiments of his teammate and camp roommate.
“It’s going to be the best experience of my life. Playing in front of that many people is going to be insane. It’ll be a memory I’ll never forget,” said Casali, who was glad to be on special teams so he’d get any early jitters out of the way. “I’m on a lot of the special teams, which is an honor. I just want to go out there and hit somebody.”
UMass sophomore quarterback Mike Wegzyn was trying to help the younger players avoid getting swallowed up by the moment.
“You have to make sure the young guys don’t get the wide eyes,” he said. “I try to tell those guys and the coaches say the same thing. Try to put yourself in front of 80,000 every time you come out to practice so when you go out there it feels like just another day of practice.”