Vanderbilt quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels (6) is brought down by Massachusetts defensive linemen Kevin Byrne (93) and Daniel Maynes (97) on a keeper in the first half of an NCAA college football game at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
FOXBOROUGH — The University of Massachusetts trailed Vanderbilt by just three points after three quarters at Gillette Stadium, setting off a potential upset alert across a sleepy college football landscape Saturday.
Two ensuing time-chewing, backbreaking Commodore drives later left UMass with little more than a moral victory as it fell 24-7.
“At the end of the day we lost a football game but I will say this, I think our team played very very hard,” said Minutemen coach Charley Molnar, whose team fell to 0-4.
Vanderbilt (2-2), the first Southeastern Conference school to visit Gillette, amassed 83 yards on the ground in the final 19:08 to take control of a game it previously led 10-7. The Commodores mixed a blend of wildcat offense and quarterback keepers to initiate an 80-yard scoring drive, making it 17-7 with 13:44 remaining.
Quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels capped the drive with an 11-yard touchdown pass to leading receiver Jordan Matthews, who broke two tackles on a screen, traveled across the length of the field and leapt a defender to punch it in.
The Commodores regained possession only two minutes later, starting a 14-play, 89-yard drive which included two third-down conversions and one fourth-down conversion and finished with a Jerron Seymour 1-yard rushing touchdown to make it 24-7.
UMass held Vanderbilt at bay for the majority of the first three quarters, methodically grinding out offensive drives using short passes. The offense enjoyed the addition of tight end Rob Blanchflower, who caught seven passes for 42 yards in his first start of the year after dealing with an undisclosed injury.
“Here’s what I know, when he was out there it gave a sense of confidence, of energy to our offense that, made a difference,” Molnar said. “It just felt really good to have Blanch out there. He kind of stumbled and bumbled his way through certain things but he caught the ball, he plays fiercely, he’s tough and I’m sure they knew when he was in the game.”
Quarterback A.J. Doyle completed 20-of-28 passes, 14 of which went to Blanchflower and leading receiver Tajae Sharpe, who had seven receptions for 45 yards, including a second-quarter touchdown. Despite completing 20 passes, Doyle amassed only 133 yards, 112 of which came in the first half.
“It is about making the right reads and most of the time the first guy in my progression was open,” Doyle said. “There will be chances we take to go deep, but as long as the defense will give me 5 yards to throw the ball, I will take it.”
Sharpe’s touchdown, the only scoring play of the day, was the culmination of a 14-play, 75-yard drive. He caught three passes for 22 yards on the drive.
Much of the UMass offensive rhythm stalled in the second half, an issue compounded when Doyle left the game with a left ankle injury with just over 9 minutes remaining in the third quarter. Despite returning several series later, the offense was unable to generate momentum alternating between Doyle and backup Mike Wegzyn, while dealing with injuries to running backs Stacey Bedell and Lorenzo Woodley.
“We just ran into a string of injuries that were almost mind-boggling,” Molnar said.
He later added, “Play selection on offense became quite challenging at times where we had certain plays designed for certain players and they weren’t in the game.”
Molnar also noted the game’s flow presented difficulties in sustaining momentum, as there were several stoppages of play due to official reviews.
“I’ve never been in a game with so many stoppages of play,” Molnar said. “Really, it hurt the momentum. I can’t speak for them but certainly it hurt our momentum at times.”