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Head to head: Notre Dame vs. Massachusetts

| Thursday, September 24, 2015


The Minutemen’s best offensive weapon is graduate student quarterback Blake Frohnapfel. In two games this season, he has thrown 618 yards and four touchdowns. And that’s a continuation of last season, when he averaged 334.5 yards per game and tossed 23 scores in 10 games. The Minutemen rely on him heavily, with nearly half their offense coming through the air so far this year.

His list of targets is thin. Senior receiver Tajae Sharpe has caught 22 passes this season for 294 yards and is climbing up the program record books. After him, though, the next closest receiver has 125. Senior Rodney Mills is listed as a fullback on the Massachusetts depth chart, but he has two touchdowns and 104 yards on just five catches.

Notre Dame, on the other hand, should have junior safety Max Redfield back from injury to reclaim his starting spot after sophomore Drue Tranquill took it against Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets didn’t test the Irish secondary last week until the game was out of reach, and Virginia exposed several weaknesses two weeks ago, so it is unclear how the unit will respond to its first legitimate passing threat of the year.



Georgia Tech’s triple-option attack was supposed to present the biggest challenge of the year for Notre Dame’s front seven. Instead, the Yellow Jackets managed just 216 yards on 47 attempts. The Irish held them to three conversions on 15 third downs. Sheldon Day had four tackles, one for loss, and two quarterback hits, while the linebacker corps of graduate student Joe Schmidt, junior Jaylon Smith and sophomore Greer Martini went one through three to lead the team in tackles.

The possibility of a letdown against the Minutemen is minimal. Redshirt senior Jamal Wilson hasn’t averaged more than 40 yards per game in his career, and overall, UMass ranks 121st out of 127 in the FBS in rushing offense. That’s only slightly better than its 112th position last year.



This is the biggest game in program history for Mark Whipple and the Minutemen. They are four-touchdown underdogs and only a few years removed from the FCS.

Notre Dame is only playing this game because Whipple’s predecessor, Charley Molnar, was Brian Kelly’s longtime offensive coordinator. But Molnar is gone, and in his absence, the Massachusetts offense jumped from 11.7 points per game to 27.3 in a single season. The Minutemen also posted their best FBS record last year at 3-9 and hung tough against Temple last week. But UMass did lose to Temple because of a blocked extra point.

For Notre Dame, Brian VanGorder’s defense was well prepared last week for the nation’s most prolific offense in Georgia Tech.



Perhaps the most untested unit of the team, the Minutemen’s special teams have done almost nothing in 2015 through two games. Senior returner Trey Dudley-Giles has no punt returns to his name. On kickoffs, the team is averaging under 20 yards per return. Senior kicker Blake Lucas has attempted one 34-yard field goal, which he made.

Just about the only area where Massachusetts gets plenty of work is punting. Redshirt sophomore punter Logan Laurent has 14 punts and an average of 40 yards. Only two of his kicks have ended inside the 20-yard line. Notre Dame has been pretty awful on special teams this year, but against Massachusetts, the Irish could pass for competent.



DeShone Kizer wasn’t perfect last week against Georgia Tech, but he was perfectly adequate. One touchdown and interception each, 242 yards and 21 completions on 30 attempts will not win the Irish every game, but it will give them at least a chance to win them. With Kizer under center, Notre Dame’s playoff hopes are not dead quite yet.

The Minutemen give up almost 400 yards per game through the air this year. While that has only resulted in two passing scores for their opponents, they allow 7.6 yards per attempt. Kizer should have plenty of time in the pocket to find targets in a relatively small Minuteman secondary.

Meanwhile, Will Fuller is building a case to be considered the best receiver in the country, with five touchdowns and 132.3 yards per game so far. He is also Notre Dame’s most dangerous big-play threat, with the seven longest passes of the year all going to him.



C.J. Prosise broke record last Saturday with his 91-yard touchdown, the longest run in Notre Dame Stadium history. He scored twice more and ended with nearly 200 yards rushing all by himself. Prosise also has the benefit of playing behind one of the most experinced offensive lines the Irish have had in quite some time.

Massachusetts allows nearly 230 yards rushing per game, which has turned into six rushing touchdowns allowed in two games.

The only major area of concern for the Irish is how many carries Prosise will take Saturday. Brian Kelly has said he wants the senior to stay fresh for later opponents, and Notre Dame cannot afford another injury. Freshmen Josh Adams and Dexter Williams back Prosise up but didn’t see the field all that much against Georgia Tech. That will change as they develop further, Kelly said, starting as soon as Saturday.



    For some reason, Kelly seems to thrive when working with a rookie quarterback. He tailored the offense to suit Kizer’s skillset last week against Georgia Tech, and he will likely only make some small adjustments this week

    It is unlikely Kizer will take on more in his second career start. Kelly has said his fundamentals need improvement, even though he was pleased with his performance overall. A specific area of concern is Kizer’s cadence, which Kelly said is slower than Malik Zaire’s and resulted in four false start penalties last Saturday.

     Kelly helped Kizer against the Yellow Jackets by putting an increased load on C.J. Prosise, who proved himself more than equal to the task. This week, however, the rushing load will likey be split between Prosise, Adams and Williams to keep Prosise fresh.




Freshman kicker Justin Yoon endured a rough day against Georgia Tech, knocking one extra point off the goalpost and flat out missing another. He did make his only field goal attempt of the game, a 29-yard chip shot, but he lacks consistency.

Sophomore punter Tyler Newsome averaged around 40 yards per punt against the Yellow Jackets and got three touchbacks on kickoffs, but the coverage unit allowed 20-yard returns on those three returns. On punts, Georgia Tech had 34 yards on three returns, including a long of 18.

C.J. Sanders continued to struggle on punt returns, collecting seven yards on two returns, and Amir Carlisle only had one kickoff return for 16 yards.


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