UMass searches for signs of progress

Charley Molnar hesitated.

The first-year UMass football coach isn’t often at a loss for words, but the question gave him pause.

Have you seen your team progress from game to game?

“I grudgingly say yeah, we’re making improvement,” Molnar said in a phone interview this week. “It’s hard as a head coach to say you’re making improvement when you aren’t winning.”

Making the transition this year from Division I-AA to Division I-A, the Minutemen are 0-4 after four weeks of the season. They’re losing by an average of 34.25 points per game.

Yet after his momentary pause, Molnar checked off a list of things his team is getting better at. They’re tackling better, they’ve taken care of the ball (except for the three interceptions Mike Wegzyn threw in the team’s last game), they’ve gotten some players healthy on the offensive line, which has helped the running game.

“Our inability to put it all together on both sides of the ball for four quarters is the reason why some of these games we didn’t get the result we want,” he said.

The Minutemen welcomed Anthony Dima back to the O-line a few weeks ago, and should have left guard Michael Boland back for this week’s game against Ohio at Gillette Stadium (3:30 p.m., ESPN3).

“Some teams have the same guys playing two years in a row,” Molnar said, “we were lucky to have the same guys playing two games in a row.”

With Dima back on the line for the second straight week against Miami (Ohio), the Minutemen’s rushing attack thrived. Michael Cox carried the ball 30 times for 188 yards and two touchdowns in the 27-16 loss.

The running back, who transferred to UMass this season after spending four years on the Michigan sideline in Ann Arbor, definitely sees last week’s effort as a step forward -- for himself and for the team.

“I was happy with my performance and just seeing the team get better every week,” he said. “It definitely felt good to see that we’re getting better.”

Ohio won’t make it easy on the Minutemen this week. The Bobcats (4-0, 1-0) are leading the Mid-American Conference in scoring at 36.5 points per game, and are third in rushing offense (211.5 yards a game) and fourth in passing offense (253.5 yards a game).

Stopping that attack is simple, really, Molnar said.

“It comes down to the same thing,” he said. “It’s being disciplined on defense. ... If guys will play disciplined defense, with good fundamentals, we’ll obviously have a chance in this game.”

The Bobcats aren’t just a one-trick pony, as they also give up the fewest points in the conference at just 18.0 points a game.

Cox said the Minutemen need to do a couple of things to get their offense going more consistently. They need to stop having so many costly penalties (they had eight for 88 yards against the Redhawks), and they need to convert when they get into the red zone.

UMass is 6-for-9 in red zone attempts, with only three touchdowns. Two of the three red zone touchdowns came in the team’s last game, though, so call it progress.

“I think we’re right there, you know,” Cox said, “real close to winning.”

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