With an extra week to prepare, and a glimpse at what works, this one's on Phil.
UMass defensive coordinator Phil Elmassian
While talking to reporters during the preseason, Phil Elmassian, UMass' defensive coordinator, swore up and down that the Minutemen would run a 4-3 defense. Then, when the team took the field at Camp Randall, folks were scratching their heads as the Minutemen lined up in a 3-4.
Head scratching turned to fist pounding as UMass rolled out the foreign defense in its embarrassing home loss to Maine and again on the road against Kansas State.
Then, in its home game against Vanderbilt – a team with more talent, size and speed – the Minutemen went back to its bread and butter, and it worked. Despite eventually losing 24-7, UMass had its best defensive performance and reaped the benefits of having four down lineman and not leaving Galen Clemons on an undesirable island.
However, even after its best performance, it wasn't entirely clear whether the 4-3 was the future look. Molnar said the defense was, in essence, a product of circumstance.
“It was a number of decisions. A lot of it was based on our personnel. As guys got banged up over the course of the last couple of weeks, that was the one major decision,” he said, after the loss. “Number two is the fact that some of the things we wanted to do with our defense, some of the guys just weren't as effective with it as we believed they would be. Number three, it was the style of play that Vanderbilt uses. It was really a perfect storm.”
Heading into Bowling Green, early depth charts indicate that UMass will come back out in the 4-3. If all holds, Clemons, who has been a tough customer in even tougher situations, will benefit from having Daniel Maynes on his shoulder, and the trio of linebackers – Shane Huber, Stanley Andre and Ed Saint-Vil – will get a second chance to show how they work as a unit.
If Elmassian opts to stay the preferred course, Bowling Green will provide a tough test with decent opportunities for success. The Falcons have a pretty good offensive line, but against Akron the big boys allowed six sacks in the first half, and the Zips don't exactly have a powerful front.
Then again, the Minutemen only have two sacks on the year, and one of them came from injured safety Joey Colton.
It will be interesting to see how much Elmassian mixes in guys like Trey Seals and Peter Angeh, two guys who are athletic enough to cause problems off the edges – particularly against tackles who aren't very quick. Many are also waiting for the resurgence of Kassan Messiah, who hasn't started this year and has seen his production level drop off dramatically from last year's clip.
Elmassian has to prepare his group for a very different Bowling Green team. Matt Schilz, a traditional pocket passer who has nearly 8,000 career passing yards, has been benched in favor of Matt Johnson, a smaller dual-threat quarterback with some speed. Anyone following UMass football during the past two years knows the equation:
Fast quarterback + Adequate offensive line = Long, long game for the Minutemen.
Pair that with speedy Travis Greene, and Elmassian better have a game plan that – at least on paper – that calls for multiple defenders in the box, ready to blitz early and often. If not, and Bowling Green is able to get into its boring, chip-and-punch rhythm, UMass is going to wear down by the third quarter, which is when the Falcons pay the rent.
This season, BGSU has outscored opponents 45-14 in the third period.
Elmassian's crew has another tough test ahead of them, and considering Bowling Green's stout defense, UMass' defense is going to be on the field awhile.
How UMass responds after its best performance, and a week off to think about it, will be key at Doyt Perry.