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September 13, 2012

Maize N' View: UMass' matchup presents an opportunity

Chris Matsos. Ricky Reyes. Max Pollock. Not your household Michigan names, but each had a memorable moment in a U-M uniform during a one-sided affair, and all three are eager to see the Wolverines get up big against UMass so more third- and fourth-stringers can make a memory they never forget ...

Trivia: With his two rushing touchdowns and two passing scores against Air Force, quarterback Denard Robinson has now accounted for four touchdowns in a single game eight times during his career, a U-M record. Two questions, who ranks second all time?; and what is the single-game record for TDs?

Back to the column ...

Michigan has won 22 games by four or more touchdowns since 2000, providing opportunities for Matsos, Reyes, Pollock and countless others to step foot on the field at The Big House and live out their fantasy, though, they don't quite see it like that.

"Honestly, even though the walk-ons don't get a chance to play on a regular basis, they're making a lot of those plays in practice, and lately, with guys like Jordan Kovacs, we're seeing that," said Reyes, a receiver from 2007-09. "A lot of walk-ons could have played someplace else but they wanted to win championships at Michigan and they sacrifice an opportunity for playing time because they want to compete at the highest level."

A receiver from 2001-04, lettering as a senior, Matsos echoes Reyes' sentiments, and is relishing the opportunity many of U-M's current walk-ons - Kovacs, tight end Mike Kwiatkowski, offensive guard Joey Burzynski, fullback Paul Gyarmati, defensive tackle Nathan Brink and safety Floyd Simmons - are receiving as contributors.

"I'm always rooting for the walk-ons to produce and represent the guys that came before them and didn't get the same opportunity," said Matsos. "I played behind Braylon Edwards, Jason Avant and Steve Breaston, and our roster was full of NFL guys.

"Sometimes I wish I played in this era, but I have a lot of championship rings that these guys don't, and I wouldn't trade that."

With Michigan cruising to easy victories over Western Michigan (in 2002), Central Michigan and Houston (in 2003), Matsos saw the field some, but it wasn't until the Notre Dame game in 2003 that he created his lasting memory, hauling in a 19-yard reception in the fourth quarter of a 38-0 win.

"Going into that game, we really expected a battle so I never expected to play, so much so that before the game I was supposed to report to the trainer's room to get my ankles taped up - we got our ankles taped for everything - but I just grabbed some on my own and put a little over my socks to make it look like I did it," the New Boston, Mich., native relayed. "I just didn't think I'd play.

"Well, things started rolling our way and on the sideline you start getting ready mentally. I ran a seven-step skinny post and Matt Gutierrez hit me over the middle. I always joke with him if it was a little higher I would have taken it to the house because it was low and I had to go down to get it.

"I was really excited when I came to the sideline and everyone was patting me on the back ... Coach Carr gave me a high-five.

"In the moment you don't really think about it but it was Notre Dame. Brent Musburger was doing the game. We have it on tape. Back then, you maybe got in against a MAC team or Indiana, but to play against Notre Dame, to catch a pass, I really realize now what that meant."

Pollock had a different experience with Carr after his big moment, but one years later that he appreciates greatly.

A SAM linebacker from Takoma Park, Md., Pollock played in a handful of games in 2004-05, and then in the second game of the 2006 season, against Central Michigan, with the Wolverines leading 34-10 entering the fourth quarter, he heard his number called.

"On the first play, I'm lined up over the tight end and he just pancakes me," Pollock said. "I got absolutely decimated and my confidence is just shot, and then Central breaks the huddle in a weird formation and I end up on a wide receiver in the slot. I'm really not sure of myself at that point but I drop into coverage and pretty soon the ball is headed right towards me."

Pollock wrapped his hands around and with only 12 yards between him and the end zone, sprinted with everything he had. Though video replays - unavailable to officials at the time - would show he was stripped before crossing the goal line, Pollock was awarded the touchdown.

"Brian Kelly, who has developed a bit of a reputation as a guy with a temper, was just going nuts, yelling at the officials, 'He fumbled, he fumbled. That's a touchback.' I'll never forget how red he was," Pollock said.

The next day in film study, Pollock expected to be applauded by his teammates and coaches, but instead was chewed out by Carr.

"He called my return 'embarrassing' and said that if I ever get my hands on a football again I was not to fumble the football," Pollock relayed.

"At first, I was really surprised and thought it was some sort of joke, but he was serious. And then I realized that he was treating me the same way he would have if that was Prescott Burgess or Shawn Crable or LaMarr Woodley - all guys I played with - and when I figured out he was treating me like a scholarship starter ... that really was something I'll cherish forever."

In 2008, as a junior, Reyes played in three games, and became the envy of walk-ons everywhere when he pounced on a blocked punt and scooted three yards to score a touchdown against Northwestern.

Reyes wasn't sure if his opportunity would come on offense so he dedicated himself to becoming an asset on special teams. His effort, and his coaches' faith in him, paid off.

"Mike Williams and I were the only ones who went after the punt but we knew we had a chance," Reyes said. "Preparation was the key because if you just go out there and you're not mentally ready and you're not confident, you won't do anything.

"When I got to the sideline, everyone was jumping all over me. The guys love an underdog, and they really love to see their teammates that don't get playing time and recognition get a chance to make a play."

A year later, in a 63-6 thumping of Delaware State, Reyes entered the game at receiver in the fourth quarter and caught a four-yard pass from David Cone. After a Michael Cox run went for no gain, Reyes slipped past a defender, broke into the open and snagged a 29-yard reception that would have been a touchdown but the throw was off and Reyes had to slow down to adjust to its path.

"It caught me off guard but I wasn't going to drop it," said the Macomb, Mich., native. "Delaware State was in man coverage, and most of their first-teamers were still in the game. When we got the play called, I knew there was an opportunity and I just buckled down mentally because I didn't want to be too excited."

This weekend, someone else will step into Matsos' shoes, Reyes', Pollock's, and have the chance to do something special. They can't wait to see another walk-on from U-M's great lineage take advantage.

"There is no guarantee the game will go the way we think, but an opponent like this gives you more focus because you know you have a better chance to play than if it's Notre Dame or Michigan State or Ohio State," Matsos said. "So those guys will have a great week of practice because they'll want to catch their coaches' attention.

"You come to Michigan to compete and those long, hard days where you don't see a pay off - this is it. This is that moment you've been waiting for, and I fully expect to see a lot of guys that otherwise don't get the chance to show what they can do."

It's an opportunity for the reserves' families too.

"I was from out of state and it was asking a lot for my parents to drive in every weekend, but for a game like this, when you think you'll get a chance to play, you tell them, 'Maybe you'd like to come to this one,'" Pollock said. "They did and they saw me score a touchdown.

"It really is indescribable. You toil in obscurity for a week of practice, for the season, really for your entire career, and you're just waiting for a chance like this."

Quote of the Week: Part I

"If they're out there on the field, that means the coaches trust them. The coaches won't put players out there that they don't trust.

"It's all about competition. Doesn't matter if you're a fifth-year senior or a freshman, there's competition throughout the entire year, not just camp, so you have to come on a week-to-week basis ready to compete for your job." - Redshirt junior free safety Thomas Gordon on the abundance of true freshmen playing prominent roles this year.

Quote of the Week: Part II

"We're taking players that were I-AA and the next morning they're I-A. They haven't gotten bigger, stronger or faster - their skill set hasn't improved. They've just moved up a level of competition. And our job as coaches is not only to train them physically but also make them believe they're capable of competing with the guys on their schedule." -- UMass first-year coach Charley Molnar on matchup challenges his team faces in its first season as a Division-I program.

Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Watch

1. Michigan State RB Le'Veon Bell: A week after rushing for over 200 yards in a win over Boise State, Bell wasn't called on to be the one-man workhorse for the Spartans - not with quarterback Andrew Maxwell throwing for 275 yards and two touchdowns - however, Bell still finished with 70 yards and ran for a pair of scores, from one and seven yards out in staking MSU to a 14-0 lead.

After two games, Bell ranks sixth nationally and second in the Big Ten averaging 140.0 yards rushing per contest. Saturday, State hosts Notre Dame in a key early-season matchup.

2. Ohio State QB Braxton Miller: The sophomore signal-caller has taken to Urban Meyer's offense quickly, averaging 332 yards of total offense per game the first two weeks while accounting for seven total touchdowns.

A week ago, in a 31-16 win over Central Florida, Miller recorded his second consecutive 100-yard rushing performance (141 yards and three scores on 27 carries) and the fifth of his career. He also completed 18 of 24 attempts (75.0 percent) for 155 yards with a TD and an interception.

This week Ohio State hosts Pac 12 foe California, and Miller can continue to build his resume against a Bears' defense that ranks 71st against the run and 76th overall.

3. Wisconsin RB Montee Ball: Michigan's Denard Robinson is rising and Nebraska's Taylor Martinez could also go in this spot, but Ball probably shouldn't drop from No. 1 to out of the list altogether simply because of one bad game. That said, it was a putrid performance by him and his team as Ball was held to 61 yards rushing on 15 carries (4.1-yard average) and Wisconsin was limited to 35 net yards in a 10-7 loss to Oregon State.

Ball's 61 yards rushing represented a 20-game low - he had 18 yards on three carries in a 31-30 win over Iowa on Oct. 23, 2010.

The good news for Ball and the Badgers is they face two cupcakes the next two weeks in Utah State and UTEP.

Fearless Prediction of the Week

Last week I said Michigan would hold Air Force to fewer than 250 yards rushing, and, regrettably, I was wrong (AFA had 290).

This week, expect to see redshirt freshman Russell Bellomy considerably in the second half against Massachusetts, so much so that he will record both his first touchdown pass and first rushing touchdown. Mark it down, two scores for Bellomy Saturday.

Trivia Answer: Former QB Rick Leach accounted for four touchdowns or more six times during his career from 1975-79 while Steve Smith (who ranks third with five rom 1980-83) had six touchdowns against Illinois in 1981 and Minnesota in 1983 - three rushes and three throws each time.

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