UMass prepares for Mountaineers

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 19, 2006

By Howard Ulman

Associated Press

BOSTON — Several colleges liked Steve Baylark in his last year at Apopka High School in Florida. They wanted him in their backfield — as a fullback.

Baylark had other ideas. He wanted to avoid big defenders instead of block them, so interest among those schools waned. Then Massachusetts, a university he knew nothing about, surprised him. They wanted him as a running back, and Baylark headed north.

Then he showed the schools that bypassed him what they had missed.

Baylark is the nation’s eighth leading rusher in Division I-AA this season, the fourth in which he ran for more than 1,000 yards, and he will lead the Massachusetts offense in Friday night’s title game against defending champion Appalachian State. Both teams are 13-1.

“I knew I could play other things besides fullback,” he said Monday, “and I definitely didn’t want to be banging up against big old linebackers at the next level.”

The Minutemen reached the championship game in Chattanooga, Tenn., with a 19-17 win last Friday night over Montana. Baylark gained 169 yards on 29 carries and 76 yards on five receptions.

“We’ve been very good at running the football, which has given us balance,” coach Don Brown said. “I think our balance on offense has pretty much shown through in every football game.”

Their defense has been even more impressive. The Minutemen have allowed the fewest points per game (12.3) in Division I-AA.

They’ll have to be solid against an offense that features two dangerous runners and ranks third in yards gained among all I-AA teams.

In Saturday’s 49-24 win over Youngstown State, Kevin Richardson rushed for 145 yards and two touchdowns and freshman quarterback Armanti Edwards ran for 110 yards and three touchdowns while throwing for 164 yards and a touchdown. Richardson left the game in the third quarter with a shoulder injury but expects to play against Massachusetts.

“Armanti Edwards is dynamic at quarterback,” Brown said. “Kevin Richardson really fits what they do well, just a great slasher as a running back.”

Brown said he hopes Edwards’ inexperience will show but isn’t optimistic.

“I don’t think he’s going to flinch,” Brown said. “We don’t have any illusions of grandeur. He’s going to make some plays. We just need to recover from that.”

The Minutemen have done that well recently, shutting out their last three opponents in the second half.

Last year, Appalachian State beat Northern Iowa in the title game, 21-16. Massachusetts is in it for the third time; it lost to Florida A & amp;M in 1978 and beat Georgia Southern in 1998 under coach Mark Whipple, now quarterbacks coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers and a candidate for the head coaching job at Boston College.

“I didn’t know anything about UMass,” Baylark said. “Mark Whipple came out of nowhere. I was out trying to do track practice” in high school when he was told Whipple wanted to talk to him.

“He really thought I could play here” at Massachusetts, Baylark said, “especially at tailback.”

Whipple’s assessment helped his successor. In four years with the Minutemen, Baylark was part of a 10-3 team under Whipple in 2003, followed by records of 6-5 and 7-4 under Brown before this year.

For the first time in all those years, Baylark said his parents will make the trip to watch him play.

“I brought tape home. That’s the most they’ve seen,” he said. “It definitely will be more motivation for me. … There’s definitely going to be emotion after the game, but before, it’s all focus.”

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