First Look: UMass

It would be difficult for any Notre Dame opponent to be a bigger mess than UMass, although cleanup is underway. Still, the Minutemen may offer the Irish a rare breather within a tricky slate.

The University of Massachusetts knew jumping into the FBS would be a challenge.

Instead, it’s been an unmitigated disaster.

The resulting wreckage in Amherst offers Notre Dame an in-season scrimmage of sorts, stuck in late September between Georgia Tech’s triple option and a road trip to Clemson.

Former Notre Dame offensive coordinator Charley Molnar is long gone after two years, two wins and allegations of mistreating players. UMass brought back former head coach Mark Whipple from the program’s I-AA days to replace him last off-season and the Minutemen improved to 3-9 in 2014.

Yet even that slight uptick needs context.

The program will be booted from the Mid-American Conference after this season and will go independent. It now plays home games split between campus and the New England Patriots’ Gillette Stadium, located 90 minutes away. When UMass hosted Colorado last season at Gillette, the game drew an announced crowd of 10,227.

To put the apathy about UMass football in perspective, more people attended Penn State’s 48-7 demolition of the Minutemen in Happy Valley last September than attended every UMass home game combined.

Irish Illustrated’s look at Notre Dame’s schedule moves to the slate’s worst opponent.

UMass has a legit QB

No seriously, the Minutemen have a solid quarterback with an All-American name.

Blake Frohnapfel was an All-MAC quarterback last season, his first in Amherst after a graduate transfer move from Marshall. He arrived with two seasons of eligibility remaining and proved productive on a bad team. While he completed just 55.1 percent of his passes, Frohnapfel racked up 3,345 passing yards, 23 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Leading receiver Tajae Sharpe is back after posting 85 catches, 1,281 yards and seven scores.

Frohnapfel is so important to UMass that Whipple sat him during the spring game to avoid injury. He missed the final two games of last season with a leg injury, both losses when the Minutemen totaled 336 yards passing.

What does it take to be first-team All-MAC? For the sake of comparison, Andrew Hendrix was the third-team All-MAC quarterback last season.

Apparently, Frohnapfel was good enough to generate some buzz about an early departure to the NFL, despite his work toward an MBA in the University’s business school.

“People ask me, ‘Are you going to leave?’” Frohnapfel told Mass Live last December. “And I say, ‘To go where?’”

Gaining Ground

UMass got better under Whipple last season, even if it won just three games.

In Molnar’s debut, the Minutemen lost by an average of 30.7 points per game. In Molnar’s second season that average dropped to 23.9 points per game. That margin shrunk again in Whipple’s encore debut, down to 11.5 points per game. The Minutemen lost by a field goal twice and also lost 42-41 at Miami of Ohio, giving former Irish offensive coordinator Chuck Martin his first win.

In Whipple, UMass has a steady hand who led the program from 1998-2003, winning the I-AA national championship in his first season. He went 49-26 during that run, winning the Atlantic 10 three times. Whipple’s resume includes one Super Bowl title when he worked as quarterback coach with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He last crossed paths with Notre Dame as Miami’s offensive coordinator, his final game being the Sun Bowl that wrapped Brian Kelly’s debut season.

UMass should be even more competitive this season with all five starters back on the offensive line to go with both top running backs. Frohnapfel and Sharpe represent an underrated pass-and-catch combination.

The defense returns plenty of starting experience in four defensive backs, three linebackers and two defensive linemen. That group includes linebacker Jovan Santos-Knox, who led the Minutemen with 143 tackles last season.

However, that experience must improve for the program to challenge in the MAC or put up a fight in South Bend. UMass ranked No. 105 in scoring defense last season at 33 points per game and No 92 in rushing defense at 191.8 yards per game. It was No. 89 in yards per carry allowed at 4.68.

Bottom line, UMass should be better this fall in leaving the Molnar mess behind. But it shouldn’t matter if Notre Dame is a legitimate College Football Playoff contender.

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