UMass football takes giant step forward

That whooshing noise you heard Saturday afternoon? It came from Amherst, and it was a “big sigh of relief from a lot of people.”

That’s how UMass head coach Charley Molnar described the Minutemen’s first win at the FBS level (in their 10th game as a Division I-A team) on his weekly Mid-American Conference call with the media on Monday.

“Not only was it a great day just for the players on the team, but everybody associated with the program and the whole university,” Molnar said of what the 22-14 win at Akron meant for UMass. “I think it was a big step that the university took to really make this into a I-A program and try to increase the visibility of our athletic program and our university across the country.

“It was a good first step for our program.”

The Minutemen defense produced four interceptions against the Zips, leading to 19 points. UMass’ special teams also played a role, with place-kicker Blake Lucas hitting three field goals and an extra point after not being called on in two of the previous three games as the Minutemen offense struggled (getting shut out by Bowling Green 24-0 on Oct. 20 and by Northern Illinois 63-0 on Nov. 3).

Molnar & Co. (1-9, 1-5 MAC) now finish off the season with two home games at Gillette Stadium. They host Buffalo (3-7, 2-4 MAC) on Saturday (3 p.m. ET), and Central Michigan (4-6, 2-4) on the day after Thanksgiving, Friday Nov. 23 (3 p.m. ET).

On Monday, Molnar broke down the Bulls.

“They have two defensive ends that are really as good as any we have played all year,” he said of Steven Means (3.5 sacks) and Colby Way (5.5 sacks). “Being able to control those two and neutralize those two is gonna take a lot of work on our part. It’s gonna take some outstanding work from our offensive tackles.”

Molnar also praised running back Branden Oliver.

“He’s not blazing fast but he has great vision and great cuts,” he said. “It’s gonna be a real challenge for our front seven playing against him.”

The Minutemen are still battling for legitimacy, hoping to build on what they accomplished last weekend.

“Obviously we have a long way to go,” Molnar said. “I was hoping that we’d be further along than we are right now, but nevertheless I think everybody feels pretty good and it was a big sigh of relief from a lot of people.”

Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.