WORCESTER - Jonathan Hernandez put the UMass Minutemen on his back, rushing for 156 yards on 29 carries to lead his team to a 24-16 victory over the Holy Cross Crusaders in the season opener and first ever game under the lights at Fitton Field in Worcester, MA on Thursday night.
"It's nothing you wouldn't expect from John," said UMass head coach Kevin Morris. "We want that from John, we need that from John. He's going to provide it. Some of those runs were well-blocked and some of those runs were John Hernandez runs where a three-yard gain turns into 12 [yards] somehow, someway."
UMass (1-0) jumped out to an early 14-3 lead by the second quarter and never looked back, outscoring Holy Cross10-7 in the final two quarters and sending the 15,942 fans in attendance at Fitton Field home on a sour note.
"We're very excited about coming away with a win," Morris said. "This may be the end of a long series dating back to the 1800s. We wanted to go out on top and that's been our theme all preseason and in the offseason."
Thursday night's game marked the start of UMass' last season in the CAA, as it will make the move to the MAC and the FBS level starting next season. In addition, the game was the first ever under the lights for Holy Cross, and the Minutemen did everything they could to spoil it for the Crusaders.
"With the whole transition coming, we wanted to go out on top in the CAA," Morris added. "[It was a] very important win for us tonight ... It's not easy playing a team like Holy Cross, they're not going to make it easy. They're going to make it tough on you, and they did, but we did do enough tonight to get the win."
The Minutemen used two quarterbacks, with redshirt freshman Brandon Hill (5-for-8, 30 yards) starting the game and Bowling Green transfer Kellen Pagel (10-for-16, 104 yards, 2 TDs) finishing it. Hill struggled from the start and nearly threw two interceptions before Pagel replaced him and took most of the remaining snaps in the game.
Pagel didn't completely take over the game once he entered, but he was a big step up from Hill.
"It was the first game, and that pretty much sums it up," Pagel said. "There's a lot of good plays on offense. At the same time, we need to get in the film room and take as much time as we can with things. I feel really confident in what we have going and everything like that."
Pagel's totals didn't wow anyone, but considering that UMass is working with two quarterbacks with limited knowledge of the system, it was an encouraging performance. While Pagel was impressive in his first game with UMass, he later admitted that he was nervous when he stepped onto the field.
"Yeah, a little bit," said Pagel when asked if he was relieved after he threw his first pass - a completion to wideout Jesse Julmiste for a first down early in the second quarter. "The guys really played well up front and all around. I was just relaxed, you know, just able to go out and just do my thing."
UMass broke onto the scoreboard with 5:48 remaining in the first quarter when Emil Igwenagu leaped into the endzone for a one-yard touchdown run, giving the Minutemen an early 7-0 advantage.
Paul Tearson connected on a 44-yard field goal with 13:30 left into the second period to cut the Minutemen lead to 7-3, capping off a seven-play, 22-yard drive that lasted three minutes and 11 seconds.
Pagel put the Minutemen up by 11 when he zipped a 10-yard pass to Julmiste on a slant rout with 10:42 to go in the half. The touchdown pass finalized a six-play, 44-yard drive that spanned nearly three minutes.
Holy Cross quarterback Ryan Taggart brought the Crusaders within a score after his three-yard touchdown run, but the extra point was off, bringing the score to 14-9 in favor of UMass. On fourth and two on the UMass three yard line, Taggart took the snap and rolled right, and when he saw no one open in the endzone, he spun left around a Minutemen defender and scrambled for the score with 6:59 left in the opening half.
In the second half, Crusaders kicker Brendon Levengood made a 25-yard field goal with 6:59 left in the third quarter, cutting the deficit to five points.
Pagel put the game away in the fourth quarter when he tossed a four-yard pass to Julian Talley with 7:51 left to cap off a 10-play, 70-yard drive that lasted almost five minutes.
Taggart found Gerald Mistretta for a 19-yard touchdown with 51 seconds left to cut the UMass lead to 24-16. Holy Cross attempted an onside kick, but UMass recovered and ran out the clock to seal the win.
Julmiste led the Minutemen receivers with 61 receiving yards and a touchdown and tight end Rob Blanchflower had two catches for 29 yards.
Taggart threw for 246 yards and two touchdowns on 23-of-44 passing for Holy Cross. Reggie Woods led the Crusaders rushing game with 45 yards on nine carries. Jon Smith had four catches for 43 yards.
Even though UMass didn't blow the doors off of Holy Cross, their offense improved during the game.
"Yeah, and that's what it's all about," Morris said regarding his team's offense improving as the night progressed. "With the quarterbacks, we knew we were going to have Hill start the game and Pagel was going to get some time."
Morris wouldn't tip his hand regarding which quarterback now has the upper hand in the battle for the starting job, but Pagel's performance was very encouraging and should have given him the edge, and that's what it's all about.
"Yeah, exactly that," said Pagel when asked if his goal was to play well enough to earn more playing time. "All I can do is go with what I'm blessed enough to have and just try to make the most of every opportunity."
While it's always encouraging to start a new season with a win, the Minutemen, Hernandez and Pagel in particular, know there's still plenty of work to do in order to improve their performance on the field.
"It's not all about rushing," Hernandez said. "I made a couple of errors, pass protection and I really take that serious. [I] have to protect our quarterback."
"We've got a big day in the film room," said Pagel. "We've got things we need to correct as a whole unit, and I'm looking forward to the extra time just to do that and to clean it up."
UMass has two weeks off to prepare for its CAA opener against Rhode Island in Amherst.