UMass football: Don Brown recaps Liberty loss, turns Minutemen’s focus to finale against UConn

Liberty's Kaidon Salter, right, runs the ball for a touchdown past UMass' Jerry Roberts Jr. during the first half on Saturday  in Lynchburg, Va.

Liberty's Kaidon Salter, right, runs the ball for a touchdown past UMass' Jerry Roberts Jr. during the first half on Saturday in Lynchburg, Va. AP

UMass' Taisun Phommachanh looks to throw down field against Liberty during the first half on Saturday  in Lynchburg, Va.

UMass' Taisun Phommachanh looks to throw down field against Liberty during the first half on Saturday in Lynchburg, Va. AP


Staff Writer

Published: 11-20-2023 4:31 PM

AMHERST — The UMass football team hit the road for the final time in 2023 on Saturday when the Minutemen took on Liberty in their second-to-last game of the regular season.

Being 26.5-point underdogs to an undefeated Flames tean that is fighting for a New Year’s Six bowl game, odds were stacked against the Minutemen to keep the game close. UMass put up the game’s final 15 points to cover the spread and make the final score look respectable in a 49-25 loss in Lynchburg, Va.

Liberty wasted no time putting the game out of reach. The Flames opened the contest with 28 straight points, including 21 in the first quarter on just 16 plays. The early hole was much too deep for UMass to dig out of against a motivated Liberty team.

“Just reflecting on the game, we had some adverse things happen to us early in the first quarter, and to be honest, we never really regrouped,” UMass head coach Don Brown said during media availability on Monday.

UMass came out in the second half looking rejuvenated. The Minutemen have – for the most part – been a second-half team throughout the season, typically bringing their best football for the final 30 minutes of action. That was the case again Saturday, as UMass used converted tight end Gino Campiotti’s two fourth-quarter touchdowns (one from Taisun Phommachanh and one from Ahmad Haston) to outscore Liberty 15-14 over the course of the third and fourth frames. Campiotti finished the night with five catches for 85 yards and the two scores.

No tweaks were made in the locker room, according to Brown. The difference was simply energy and effort.

“In the second half, we played about what I expected us to play,” Brown said. “We didn’t make any adjustments defensively, we stuck with the game plan offensively.”

If it weren’t for the two interceptions Phommachanh threw – including a 62-yard pick six – on back-to-back possessions to open the second half, UMass may have been able to cut even deeper into the 35-10 halftime deficit it faced. 

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“Obviously there’s some things we want back offensively in the second half, especially in that third quarter,” Brown said. “In terms of defensively, I thought we settled down and played. I just scratch my head and say, ‘Why didn’t we play like that in the first half?’ But it is what it is, and you move on.”

Flames quarterback Kaidon Salter was Brown’s concern coming in, and he was his biggest nightmare throughout. Salter ran for 118 of Liberty’s 324 yards on the ground and added two touchdowns with his feet. The sophomore also added two touchdown tosses through the air while taking no sacks on all of his dropbacks.

“He’s good. We got him on the ground twice, but no sacks” Brown said. “When you have a guy that can minimize your sack total; and it’s not like we weren’t trying, because we were… we brought five [pass rushers] a number of times on throwing scenarios.”

When the Minutemen kept Salter in the pocket and forced him to throw, they were actually relatively successful in pass coverage. Gerrell Johnson came up with an interception at the end of the half that led to a Cameron Carson field-goal attempt and a chance to put up points before getting the ball to start the third.

Juan Lua also broke up two passes while Noah Boykin got in the mix in the secondary as well.

“He put the ball up there for us a little bit where we had some chances,” Brown said. “Every one of his [rushing] yards was off a scramble. I don’t think there was a designed run other than [one] option play that he turned into a 12-yard gain. Most of it came on ad-libbing and just finding a way to make yards.”

The scrambling ability of Salter is where UMass struggled. Liberty faced several third-down situations where the Minutemen had a chance to get their defense off the field, but Salter danced his way out of trouble and past the sticks on a few occasions – taking the wind out of the sails of the defense.

“The thing I didn’t like is we were 6-for-12 on third down [defensively],” Brown said. “Part of that was he got out on third down to extend drives.”

Kay’Ron Lynch Adams had yet another strong performance running behind the Minutemen’s much-improved offensive line. Lynch Adams ran for 92 yards, including a 23-yard touchdown, on 17 carries. The 5-foot-10 junior has more than established himself as one of a top runner in FBS this season, as he now sits at 14th in the nation with 1,106 yards on the ground.

“Our little running back just gets better every day,” Brown said. “He may not be the biggest guy in the building, but he might be the toughest guy in the building. I just like the way he goes about his business.”

Losing a game while never really being in it competitively is never fun, but there was one very positive takeaway from Saturday. UMass (3-8) comes out of Liberty relatively close to complete health, and Brown, barring any setbacks this week in practice, foresees about as near to his full complement of players suiting up as he’s had all season as the Minutemen look for win No. 4 this year. They’ll close it out with UConn (2-9) on Saturday at McGuirk Alumni Stadium, with kickoff set for noon.

“For the most part we’re fine,” Brown said. “I can’t think of anything off the top of my head that’s glaring that doesn’t at least have a chance to be back [for UConn], so I think we’ll be OK there.”