UMass Focuses on Football Not Hoops
By Jeff Donn, The Associated Press, 12/17/1998

AMHERST, Mass. (AP) -- Two games against Villanova were indicative of the topsy-turvy sports year at the University of Massachusetts.

The basketball team lost 66-55 to Villanova this week; the football team handled Villanova 36-26 earlier this season.

The Massachusetts basketball team, a Division I-A power through the 1990s, has sunk from the rankings into a 2-5 funk.

Meanwhile, the long-ignored I-AA football team is on the verge of a national title: It has an 11-3 record and reached the I-AA championship game Saturday against Georgia Southern (14-0) at Chattanooga, Tenn.

Bryan O'Quinn, a Massachusetts freshman on the soccer team, was dressing Wednesday in a cavernous, almost-empty locker room during final exam week. He perked up when asked about the football team.

He said ``everyone's eyes kind of widened'' as it went 3-0 in the postseason. The climax came Saturday with a 41-31 win over Northwestern State in the national semifinal.

``Everybody's kind of focused, because they're the main program at the moment,'' O'Quinn said. ``If the basketball team had beaten UConn and was nationally ranked, I'm sure everybody's head would be turned.''

The wizard of the Massachusetts football miracle is coach Mark Whipple, a Brown graduate who once wanted to be a lawyer. Shrugging off last season's 2-9 record, he took over this year and immediately began preaching the possibility of a national championship. To some, it seemed like empty talk.

Senior fullback Matt Jordan said he never got past imagining an Atlantic 10 conference championship. ``But now that we've made it this far ... I feel like we can go all the way,'' he said.

``I knew we'd improve,'' senior tight end Kerry Taylor said. ``I didn't think we'd improve this much. It all comes from the confidence level.''

It will take more than self-confidence, of course, to beat Georgia Southern, which has its eyes on a fifth national championship. Asked about the Eagles' weaknesses, Whipple said: ``I hope they have some. I haven't seen any.''

``Maybe the advantage is that we've been on the road ... and that's not a big deal for us anymore,'' he added.

He said his offense will pass often, as it has all season. Quarterback Todd Bankhead has 34 touchdown passes and an average of 269 yards per game. Whipple also said he's looking for some big plays and hinted at plans for some surprises.

His Georgia Southern counterpart, though, has executed his own wizardry and turnaround over the last two seasons. The Eagles, who last won a championship in 1990, bottomed out at 4-7 in 1996.

But then coach Paul Johnson took over and lifted the Eagles to 10-3 with a loss in the NCAA quarterfinals to Delaware. This season's option offense, run by quarterback Greg Hill, rushed for an average of 385 yards and scored 44 points per game.

``The attitude of this football team is outstanding. If we've done anything, it was change that,'' Johnson said.


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