By Ryan Barry
AMHERST — A picture perfect afternoon at McGuirk Alumni Stadium was the site for the Liberty Flames’ 42-24 win over the UMass Minutemen.
An early, 7-0 lead after the first quarter was about all the excitement that the Minutemen could muster, as the Flames took over after that.
Liberty (5-1) was led by redshirt sophomore running back Dae Dae Hunter (17 carries, 78 yards, TD), who despite first half struggles rebounded for a solid performance. Known in the fantasy football universe as a “touchdown vulture,” Hunter’s junior partner Shedro Louis (9 carries, 26 yards, 3 TD) set a career high in scores despite being outgained on the ground.
The Flames switched to an up-tempo no-huddle offense after their first few drives which paid dividends, taking advantage of a Minutemen defense that quickly fatigued as the game went on.
Offensively for UMass, aside from redshirt freshman running back Greg Desroisiers Jr. (7 carries, 110 yards, 2 TD), it was an all-around frustrating afternoon.
Missing the likes of Ellis Merriweather and Tim Baldwin Jr. in the backfield, along with wide receivers Rico Arnold, Cam Sullivan-Brown, and Jermaine Johnson, the Minutemen were definitely shorthanded at their skill positions.
While all signs this week seemed to be pointing towards redshirt junior Gino Campiotti getting the nod at quarterback going forward, redshirt sophomore Garrett Dzuro started under center.
“I was encouraged (by Dzuro), I thought he did a good job when he was in there,” noted UMass coach Don Brown. “He was rewarded by his last two weeks of practice, so this isn’t something we just kind of threw a hand grenade up and said here we go let’s try another guy.”
Dzuro (5 of 7 passing for 83 yards, and 11 carries for 7 yards) was removed midway through the game though after taking a rough sack, making way for Campiotti (1 of 7 passing for 5 yards, INT, and 13 carries, 14 yards) to take over the rest of the game.
After each team had a couple of stalled drives to start the game, UMass got the scoring started with a Greg Desrosiers’ 53-yard run to take an early, 7-0 lead.
At the start of the second quarter the Minutemen’s defense came up huge with a goal-line stand to deny Liberty the tie, continuing their hot start.
Despite the emphatic stop, the Minutemen’s offense couldn’t move the ball and punted back to Liberty, giving the visitors great field position at their 28-yard line. A quick touchdown from the Flames tied it at 7.
Starting field position was a problem all game for the Minutemen offense. Between penalties, poor kick/punt returns, or placement from turnover on downs, there weren’t many times that UMass was set up for success.
“The field position piece is tough to overcome when you’re giving your guys so many short fields to deal with from a defensive perspective,” Brown said.
Liberty scored another quick touchdown to extend its lead to 14-7, though UMass responded with a Cameron Carson 28-yard field goal to cut the deficit to 14-10.
With 1:50 to go in the first half, the Minutemen allowed a backbreaking deep pass from redshirt junior quarterback Johnathan Bennett (9 of 18, 183 yards, 2 TD, 9 carries, 50 yards) to redshirt sophomore wide receiver Demario Douglas (4 receptions, 134 yards, TD) into Minutemen territory, which set up a quick pass from Bennett again to redshirt senior fullback Michael Bollinger for his only reception of the day.
The second half started just as sluggish as the first, but saw Liberty snag the first score of the half courtesy of a Shedro Louis touchdown to extend the Flames’ lead to 28-10.
The Flames tacked on one more touchdown to close out the third quarter to take a 35-10 lead from Louis’s third score of the day.
On Liberty’s next offensive possession, Minutemen sophomore defensive back Javon Batten forced a fumble that was recovered by fellow sophomore defensive back Jordan Mahoney for a touchdown to cut the lead to 35-17.
The Flames’ final score of the day came via a 39-yard pass from Bennett to Douglas to increase their lead to 42-17, which a few series later was answered by a solid UMass drive that saw Greg Desroisiers Jr. notch his second touchdown of the day to make it 42-24.
While the score and flow of the game may read like a lopsided affair, compared to recent matchups between these two there were a lot more positives to take away from this UMass team, particularly on defense.
For the offense, however, Don Brown was open about the improvements that need to be made on that side of the ball.
“There were some glimpses (offensively), but we have to have more consistency as a unit.”
The Minutemen will stay in Amherst this week and prepare for a 1 pm home kickoff against the Buffalo Bulls next Saturday.