UMass sets sights on strong finish

You always remember your first time -- winning an FBS-level game, that is.

For Charley Molnar and the UMass Minutemen (1-8, 1-4 MAC), the first win came against Akron. It was in Week 10 last season, and it improved their record to 1-9.

If they want to avoid the possibility of being 1-9 again, Molnar & Co. will need to beat Akron (3-7, 2-4 MAC) this weekend.

“We've never been in that position where we can circle a team on our calendar and say ‘Yep, that's a win,’ ” Molnar said, according to a transcript of his weekly conference call. “Every game is hard fought for us. They are certainly a better football team now.”

The Zips, who finished 2012 just 1-11, have tripled that win total this season, with victories over James Madison, Miami (Ohio) and Kent State.

Both teams had a bye last week. UMass’ second bye of the season was perfectly placed, with key players including quarterback A.J. Doyle and tight end Rob Blanchflower banged up.

“The bye week couldn't have come at a better time for us,” Molnar said Monday. “We had severely thinned the ranks. Most of the injuries aren't season-ending; they are just the normal accumulation of bumps, bruises and sprains that happen to football players playing a tough game. Most of those injuries should be healed enough so that we can have a good week of practice and put a competitive team on the field Saturday afternoon.”

The Minutemen are coming off a 63-19 loss to then-No. 17 Northern Illinois two weeks ago. And while they had no answer for Huskies QB Jordan Lynch -- who accounted for five TDs, four rushing and one passing, against UMass -- the Minutemen found a silver lining in the performance of freshman running back Lorenzo Woodley.

Woodley, a 6-foot, 215-pound Miami native, carried the ball 38 times for 163 yards and a score against NIU.

But yards may be hard to come by against Akron, which ranks fourth in the MAC in rushing defense in 2013 (allowing 156.7 yards per game). That’s six spots better than last season, when the Zips gave up 211.08 yards per game on the ground and finished 10th in the MAC in rushing defense.

Despite their struggles in Year 2 at the FBS level, Molnar and the Minutemen are hoping for a strong finish.

“We really want to play our best football now as we hit this home stretch,” Molnar said. “I think the guys were in a great place and worked hard [during the bye week] and I think we're going to be ready to roll for these last three weeks.”

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