Pete Sampson: There was a feeling around UMass football this summer that the program was ready to take a significant step forward. Did the 48-14 loss to Colorado change that? Did the 25-23 loss to Temple restore it?
Daniel Malone: UMass had the highest percentage of returning starters in the country this year, so there was some hope. The Colorado loss was a major letdown because players and fans were optimistic about the year. After the game quarterback Blake Frohnapfel came out and said maybe they bought into the hype a little too much, maybe they thought they were better than they actually were.
The Temple game was big because I think inside the locker room that’s the team UMass believes that it is. They had Temple on the ropes and it took a blocked PAT returned for a two-point conversion for Temple to get in position to win the game with a field goal. UMass should have been up four points with 90 seconds left. I think the team we saw against Temple is more indicative of the talent returning and what this team can be.
I still don’t know if they’re good enough to win six games and get to a bowl, but they’re better than the Colorado performance.
PS: Where do you think they took the biggest steps forward from Colorado to Temple?
DM: The run defense was a lot better. Yes, they gave up close to 400 yards rushing against Colorado, which doesn’t exactly have a stud running back. Against Temple, the Owls’ top back (Jahad Thomas) had just 25 carries for 66 yards. He torched Cincinnati the week before. I thought Frohnapfel was also a lot better (29-of-55, 393 yards, three touchdowns) and got back into rhythm. There were a couple drops early, but he looked more like himself. If the run defense and the quarterback continue to be good, that’s a positive sign.
PS: Frohnapfel is a really interesting story because he’s a graduate student transfer but came to UMass with two years of eligibility. What’s the backstory there?
DM: I think it says something about him that he graduated early enough from Marshall that he has two years left. He’s been a gift to this team, fell into their lap. To get a 6-foot-6, pro-style quarterback who fits into head coach Mark Whipple system, that’s perfect.
Frohnapfel is a very smart kid and that strikes you when you talk with him. He comes across as that golden boy quarterback people talk about. He’s got a grip on the system, works well with Whipple in a system that’s totally different from what he ran at Marshall. He can read defenses and make all the throws. The deep ball is not a problem. Whipple has said Frohnapfel is the best player he’s ever coached and there’s some buzz that he’ll get a look in the draft next spring. He’s really the perfect quarterback at the perfect time. UMass is grateful to have him.
PS: What are Frohnapfel’s strengths as a passer?
DM: He can mix up his throws really well. He’s got a great receiver in Tajae Sharp (11 catches, 156 yards last week), who set the UMass career mark for receptions last week and will break the yardage mark later this season. You’ve seen Sharp’s potential ever since Frohnapfel showed up.
Frohnapfel has arm strength, touch and can push the ball vertically. The knock on him has sometimes been accuracy, which can come and go with the number of passes he puts up. A 60-percent day is a good one for him. Sometimes passes sail. Drops have hurt him too.
PS: A surprising strength of Notre Dame has been the defensive line. What does UMass have in its offensive front?
DM: All fives starters are back from last year, including a couple guys who rotated at guard. UMass has eight legit offensive linemen that they think could be plugged in and star. Frohnapfel was under pressure against Colorado and the group struggled. Against Temple, which sacked Christian Hackenberg 10 times, UMass only allowed one sack.
The problem has been more run blocking. UMass averaged only 1.9 yards per carry and last week and that put so much pressure on Frohnapfel. Whipple preaches balance, but that’s been hard to get on offense.
PS: What are the strengths of UMass on defense?
DM: The secondary. It’s a veteran group and brought everybody back. Cornerback Randall Jette is basically a four-year starter at corner. UMass added transfer Kelton Brackett on the other side, who came from UAB. Last week he had an interception, jumped on a fumble, had a breakup and really played with a presence. The secondary overall is definitely the strength.
The biggest knock on the defense is the lack of pressure up front. That’s been the case for a few seasons now (15 sacks last year, No. 116 nationally). They really, really struggle getting after the quarterback. If they bring four guys, they don’t get there. If they blitz, that rarely works either.
PS: One subplot to this game is former Notre Dame offensive coordinator and former UMass head coach Charley Molnar. What the heck happened there? He’s coaching receivers at Idaho now.
DM: That was a false start for UMass, to put it in football terms. Molnar was here for two years and won two games. He really alienated the fan base when he came here talking about UMass being ready to play big boy football. This program had a strong FCS history, won a national championship under Whipple before and got back to another title game. The alumni base didn’t like the way Molnar went about his business.
On the field, the results were pitiful. They were the worst team in the nation for a couple years and lost to some really bad teams. The final straw was the alumni petition that went out and then a video popped up, I think it’s still on YouTube, of a winter boxing session. He was already on thin ice. When that hit, you saw how little leeway he had. The athletic department said Molnar would actually be back in 2014, but then the Chancellor stepped in and fired him the day after Christmas. Basically, on-field and off-field results were so bad they couldn’t take another year with that guy.
Whipple came back for his second run here and was greeted as kind of a savior. A lot of people wanted him to be the choice before Molnar. UMass hopes with Whipple back that the fans come back too. It was really a no-brainer hire. But this season is absolutely a test for Whipple and the program.
PS: Is there regret around UMass about the FBS move considering how it’s all worked out, including getting kicked out of the MAC after this year?
DM: There’s some of that from fans. I would say it’s a minority, but it’s a vocal minority. The faculty senate has done their part trying to convince the Chancellor that this is a bad idea and they want that money spent elsewhere. But the school has invested so much that it’s fallen on deaf ears. They’ve put $35 million into a performance center and a new press box.
Now it’s on the new athletic director to find a new conference. That’s No. 1 on his to-do list. Life as an independent, if you’re not Notre Dame, it’s incredibly difficult. You don’t have bowl money. You don’t have TV money. For a school like UMass, that could be a death sentence if you don’t get a conference fix figured out.
PS: What’s the perception of this weekend for UMass? What has to happen for it to be considered a success despite being four touchdown underdogs?
DM: They’re talking about going there not to be blown out, going there to win. Personally, a close game at halftime would be good, maybe the word gets out on Twitter with UMass fans to watch, that UMass is hanging around with Notre Dame. To me, they have to be competitive. You’re never going to have more eyes on you than right now against Notre Dame. In a lot of ways, a respectable loss would do more for UMass than some of their wins later this year. This is the toughest opponent in program history.
Hey, for me this is amazing. I can’t wait to go to Notre Dame.