MANHATTAN, Kan. — The University of Massachusetts football team knew it needed a perfect performance to hang with Kansas State in Bill Snyder Family Stadium on Saturday. While the Minuteman’s 37-7 loss fell well short of perfect, coach Charley Molnar knows it could’ve been worse.
“I thought our team fought. Both sides of the ball fought. I’ve been to this show before and the wheels have come off,” Molnar said of his team, which held the Wildcats to 10 points in the second half. “And today, the wheels were loose but they never came off today. And that’s progress. It’s a small sign for me but it’s certainly something we can sink our teeth in and we can grow from.”
The UMass offense saw improvement against K-State behind A.J. Doyle, who took over Mike Wegzyn’s role as the starting quarterback. But the improvement wavered after the first quarter.
Doyle completed 11-of-15 passes in the first half — 7 of 9 in the first quarter — with his lone mistake being a third down interception K-State’s Kip Daily took 38 yards for a touchdown to for a 6-0 lead.
Doyle “wasn’t totally at fault on that,” Molnar said. “So we absolved him on the part that wasn’t his. And the part that was his (fault), we made the corrections and he never flinched.”
The sophomore finished his second career start 21 of 32 for 186 yards with two interceptions to go along with 37 rushing yards.
“Scoring seven points was not what I had in mind,” Doyle said of his first start of the season. “We left a lot of points out there and that’s all on me. Honestly I feel like we left about 35, 40 points on the board.”
Doyle’s second interception came on a miscommunication on a route between him and Tajae Sharp, who caught nine passes for 98 yards.
The Minuteman regrouped with a strong drive led by Doyle’s arm and Stacey Bedell’s legs. Doyle converted all five of his pass attempts and Bedell accumulated 25 yards rushing before the Minutemen stalled on K-State’s 6-yard line.
The drive didn’t result in points for UMass, however, as K-State blocked Blake Lucas’ 23-yard field goal.
Antoine Tharpe intercepted a pass from Jake Waters five plays later, giving the Minuteman offense a shot at redemption and it took advantage.
Doyle led a 46-yard scoring drive with 35 passing yards before a 2-yard touchdown run from Bedell — the first of his career — put the Minutemen on top 7-6 with six seconds left in the first quarter.
“That’s what I’m supposed to do,” Doyle said. “I’m supposed to go out and I’m supposed make the proper reads and I’m supposed to complete passes.”
The Wildcats then shifted their focus from the pass to run, and controlled play from there, racking up 329 yards rushing for the game.
“We don’t have a lot of depth at the linebacker spots,” Molnar said. “We don’t have a lot of depth in the secondary right now.”
To answer UMass’ touchdown, Daniel Sams — K-State’s backup quarterback — led a drive with 37- and 15-yard runs before a 1-yard sneak put the Wildcats up 13-7 with 9:14 left in the first half.
Kansas State extended its lead to 20-7 on an 81-yard drive all on quarterback scrambles or rushing plays.
Not long after a 20-yard kick catching interference penalty put K-State on their own 38-yard line, the Wildcats broke open another big play. Six plays into the drive, a breakdown in the UMass secondary allowed John Hubert to catch a 43-yard touchdown pass with 11 seconds left in the half.
“It took some air out of us,” Molnar said of the touchdown. “But even in the locker room, the guys were still in a good place.”
UMass stumbled to start second half with a three-and-out on offense. Soon after, the Wildcats hit another long pass to a player out of the backfield, this time to Glenn Gronkowski up the middle for a 50-yard touchdown catch and run to up the Wildcats’ lead to 34-7.
“I really thought, even at halftime, if we could get something going in that first drive, we could really make this a football game,” Molnar said. “Unfortunately that never happened.”
UMass hosts Vanderbilt at Gillete Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., Saturday at noon.
“We just have to keep pounding away at the rock,” Doyle said. “One of these days that rock is going to explode and we are going to put up 35, 40, 45 points a game. It is going to be a scary thing to see.”