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Explosive duo highlights Minutemen offense

| Thursday, September 24, 2015

Sandwiched between games against then-No. 14 Georgia Tech and current No. 11 Clemson, no one would blame Brian Kelly for taking a week off for this week’s game against MAC member Massachusetts to focus on a showdown with the Tigers next weekend.

But that’s exactly what the Irish head coach isn’t going to do.

“These are the games that concern me the most, where everybody else thinks that they are going to be easy games,” Kelly said Tuesday. “This is going to be a difficult game. … I know what we need to do. We’ve got to play well against them. So it’s not a breather for me, and I don’t count anything.

“It would be nice that all those things happen, but I don’t go into the game thinking that way. I go into the game that we have got to be prepared for everything.”

While the Notre Dame defense put up its best effort of the season in thwarting Georgia Tech’s triple-option offense last week, it will have to deal with the best quarterback it has faced so far this season in UMass graduate student Blake Frohnapfel.

Last season for the Minutemen (0-2), Frohnapfel, a graduate-student transfer from Marshall, passed for 3,345 yards in only 10 games, averaging nearly 350 yards per game, alongside 23 touchdowns to bring his passing efficiency to 132.2. He was named the 2014 all-MAC first-team quarterback, a title he is on track to claim for a second straight year in 2015.

Frohnapfel has thrown for 618 yards and two touchdowns through Massachusetts’ first two games, losses to Colorado and Temple.

Lining up as Frohnapfel’s main target downfield is senior receiver Taje Sharpe, who was named to the preseason Biletnikoff Award watch list. He joined his quarterback on the all-MAC first team last season after pulling in seven touchdowns and accumulating 1,295 all-purpose yards. Sharpe has racked up 294 receiving yards so far this season, though opposing teams have kept him from finding success in the end zone with no scores.

Kelly said the Irish defense had to make a drastic switch in practice this week between preparing for Georgia Tech’s triple-option offense to one that prefers to air it out much more often.

“It will be a big transition for us defensively,” he said. “You know, Frohnapfel, Tajae Sharpe, two very dangerous players. Blake is a very good quarterback, throws it well, has got escapability. Stands in the pocket. Knows what he’s doing. And I think Tajae Sharpe, one of the better receivers we’ll see all year.”

Minutemen head coach Mark Whipple said his offense — which converted just three of its 17 third-down opportunities last week against Temple — will be focused on the essentials this week to try to find a way to crack the strong Irish defense.

“We’re trying to find ways to make first downs, and certainly this week will probably be I would think a lot more difficult than last week,” Whipple said.

Whipple heads the offensive attack, arriving at Massachusetts after stints with Miami (Fla.), Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers, where he served as the team’s quarterbacks coach and won a Super Bowl with Ben Roethlisberger in 2006.

“They have got a good quarterback, very solid offensive line and some receivers that can create some problems,” graduate student linebacker Joe Schmidt said. “And really, they have a coordinator that was in the NFL, and he knows how to challenge a defense with concepts. So there are things that we need to make sure that we’re aware of and working on and that’s kind of what we are spending a lot of time on this week being ready for that and for everything they do.”

While Massachusetts typically faces smaller MAC programs in its conference games, the Minutemen are no strangers to settings as large as the one they will face Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium. Last year, they lost 48-7 on the road against Penn State at the expansive Beaver Stadium, which holds more than 107,000 fans at full capacity.

However, Whipple said he won’t use the tradition and setting against the nation’s No. 6 team to motivate his squad this weekend.

“They don’t give trophies, national championships. We’re not getting any rings for the game,” Whipple said. “It’s a huge game, and I think we’ll be excited, but I thought we’d be excited for Penn State last year, and we weren’t, so we’ve got to get our guys motivated and kind of get the Temple game out, and it certainly would be a big win for us.”


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