Photo by Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian
The Massachusetts football team faces Penn State Saturday in the most anticipated — and daunting — road game of the season for the Minutemen.
UMass enters the contest after two straight three-point losses, the most previous being a heartbreaking 34-31 loss to Vanderbilt on Saturday. A week prior, the Minutemen lost to Colorado 41-38 at Gillette Stadium. Now, they face a 3-0 Nittany Lions squad in enemy territory.
There’s a number of subplots entering the week, so lets jump right into it.
UMass coach Mark Whipple spoke glowingly this week about facing Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg. The 6-foot-4, 19-year old sophomore has already thrown for 1,082 yards through three games this season and completed 62 percent of his passes in that span. Hackenberg and Minutemen quartberback Austin Whipple (who is Mark Whipple’s son and previously played quarterback at Penn State) are good friends and the elder Whipple met Hackenberg on numerous visits to Happy Valley last year.
Whipple raved about Hackenberg during his weekly conference call, calling him a No. 1 overall draft pick in the NFL.
“He’s going to be the first player picked,” Whipple said. “If he could come out this year he’d be the first player picked. I watched him every game and watched him practice last year, and he roomed with my son for a little bit, he’s an awesome kid. To see the way he’s taken the team on his shoulders, the way he played all last year and the way he handles not only success but also the way he handles failures.”
UMass linebacker Jovan Santos-Knox noted Hackenberg will presumably be the best quarterback the Minutemen face this season and touted his accuracy and rhythm as a passer.
“His timing seems perfect,” Santos-Knox said. “He zips the ball in there, everything is on the money. He knows where to go with the ball, he knows where the defense is lacking at that moment. What we have to do is stay in our zones a lot longer, tighter and not give them so many open windows.”
Kicking competition continues
As of Wednesday, Whipple would not name a starting kicker between Blake Lucas or Matthew Wylie, hinting that the decision could be a true game-time decision “unless somebody stinks it up.”
Lucas missed the potential game-tying 22-yard field goal against Vanderbilt Saturday as time expired. The miss opened the door for the freshman Wylie — who handled kickoff duties against the Commodores for the first time this season — to potentially seize the starting job. Whipple noted that Lucas was still the best kicker on the team, but the gap was closing as Wylie continues to gain consistency in practice.
“I’ve definitely gotten more consistent,” Wylie said. “I feel I’m hitting a better ball each time and just making more.”
Whipple, Kenney return to Penn State
Saturday’s game marks both Whipple and wide receiver Alex Kenney’s return to Penn State, a school which both played at last season.
Whipple walked on at Penn State last year as a freshman and redshirted under Bill O’Brien. He’s connected to the region as a whole — he grew up outside of Pittsburgh and his father coached for the Pittsburgh Steelers — and even elected to stay home and graduate high school in Pennsylvania despite his father taking a job with the Cleveland Browns.
It’s a literal homecoming for Kenney, who grew up in State College, Pennsylvania. Kenney was a Nittany Lion for four seasons and had 20 career receptions for 197 yards. He said he’ll play in front of immediate friends and family Saturday and called the return home a “special experience.”
Both Whipple and Kenney fielded questions this week regarding the atmosphere at Penn State. Kenney told teammates that while the environment may be overwhelming, it shouldn’t be a concern.
“They’ve seen it on TV and heard rumors. I’ve just tried to advise everyone to try to keep their cool. The stadium may look a little intimidating, but it’s going to be all right. We’ve just got to go out there an execute,” Kenney said.
Woodley assumes roll of starting running back
With Jamal Wilson suffering a serious ankle injury against Vanderbilt and J.T. Blyden dealing with a “nick” of an injury, it was Lorenzo Woodley who assumed first-team responsibilities against the Commodores. He rushed 22 times for 43 yards and scored two touchdowns, but also misplayed a toss from quarterback Blake Frohnapfel which resulted in a Vanderbilt touchdown.
Woodley spent time in Mark Whipple’s “dog house” this summer and began the year as the third string running back despite showing potential as a freshman, rushing for over 300 yards in eight games. Now, with depth being a serious concern, Woodley will shoulder the load.