Prister’s Preview: Notre Dame vs. UMass

Behind quarterback Blake Frohnapfel, more than 71 percent of UMass’ snaps last week vs. Temple were designed passes, putting pressure on ND’s still-unproven secondary.

Massachusetts head coach

Mark Whipple  (8th year at UMass, 18th overall) – Whipple, 58, is in the second year of his second stint as head coach at UMass, where he led the Minutemen to the 1998 Division 1-AA national championship.

Whipple left UMass following the 2003 season to become the quarterbacks coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was an offensive assistant for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2008 before returning to the college game as assistant head coach/offensive coordinator for the Miami Hurricanes in 2009-10. Whipple returned to the NFL with the Cleveland Browns in 2011 for a two-year stint before returning to UMass prior to the start of the 2014 season.

Whipple had a 48-16 record at Division II New Haven from 1988-93. His four-year stint at Brown yielded a 24-16 mark. His first time through at UMass began in 1998 with the 1-AA championship. He was 49-26 with the Minutemen from 1998-2003.

Key personnel

• QB-Blake Frohnapfel (5th) – The transfer from Marshall threw for 3,345 yards, 23 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in his first year of eligibility at UMass, completing 55.1 percent (241-of-437) in ’14. The 6-foot-6, 238-pounder threw for 225 yards on 20-of-34 passing with a touchdown, an interception and three sacks in the ’15 season-opener against Colorado. He threw for another 335 yards on 29-of-55 passing with three touchdowns, an interception and a sack last week against Temple.
• WR-Tajae Sharpe (6-3, 188, Sr.) – Sharpe enters the Notre Dame game already sitting atop the UMass all-time reception list with 188 following his 11-catch, 156-yard performance against Temple -- one week after his 11-catch, 138-yard outing against Colorado. With his 2,461 career receiving yards, he is just 432 yards shy of moving into the No. 1 spot on the all-time Minutemen list.
• CB-Randall Jette (Sr.) – All-MAC second-team cornerback in ’14 with four interceptions and an impressive 18 passes defensed. Leads all current Minutemen with 37 career starts. Has seven interceptions in career and 38 passes defensed.
• FS-Khary Bailey-Smith (Sr.) – Eight career interceptions and a pair of kickoff returns for scores highlight his exploits, despite starting just 10 games in his career. Owns a 25.6-yard kickoff return average on 29 attempts. Intercepted a pass last week against Temple.
• LB-Jovan Santos-Knox (Sr.) – All-MAC first-team selection last year with 143 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, six passes broken up, three fumbles forced and a pair of sacks. Recorded 11 tackles, three for loss, and a sack against Temple last week.

What Massachusetts does well

• Throw the football: The Minutemen were first in the Mid-American Conference and 10th among all FBS teams in 2014. Blake Frohnapfel threw for more than 300 yards in five of his 10 games last season. He also had at least three touchdown passes in five games, including two with five scoring tosses.
• Get the ball in Sharpe’s hands: UMass has a few weapons offensively as the offense improved from 11.7 points per game in 2013 to 27.3 in the first year of Mark Whipple’s second stint in Amherst. Wide receiver Tajae Sharpe caught 85 passes for 1,281 yards with his yardage accounting for nearly half of the next highest yardage-producing receiver. In two games this year, Sharpe has 22 receptions (41.5 percent the team’s catches) for 294 yards (45.7 percent of the team’s receiving yardage), although he has not caught any of Frohnapfel’s four touchdown tosses.
• Special teams play: The Minutemen ranked among the nation’s top 50 in three of the four return/coverage categories in 2014. UMass was 34th in kick returns, 35th in kick coverage and 41st in punt coverage. UMass did, however, allow a late blocked extra point to be returned for two points last week against Temple.

Where Massachusetts struggles

• Third-down conversions on defense: Through two games, the Minutemen have allowed 17-of-34 third downs to be converted, which ties for 116th nationally. Last year, UMass was 84th nationally, allowing a 41.6 percent conversion rate.
• Run the football: Despite the prolific nature of the UMass passing attack, the Minutemen have great difficulty offering a balanced offense. They’ve managed just 192 yards rushing and a 3.6-yard average per carry in two games. Last year, UMass averaged 109.3 yards rushing per game (115th) and a 3.39-yard average per tote.
• Stop the run: UMass bounced back last week against Temple after a woeful start defending the run against Colorado. The Buffaloes gained 390 yards on the ground (and 6.6 yards per carry) with five rushing TDs. The Minutemen responded with a stout performance against Temple by limiting the Owls to 67 yards on 37 carries (1.8-yard average). In the last three seasons, UMass has allowed 5.3, 5.4 and 4.7 yards per carry.
• Red-zone defense: This stat is a bit deceiving because while Colorado and Temple scored on all 10 possessions against UMass, only five were touchdowns. But the Buffaloes converted 4-of-6 red-zone appearances into touchdowns. A whopping 64.6 percent (32-of-48) of red-zone entries by UMass opponents in ’14 resulted in touchdowns.

Kelly’s Call

“You rely on your leaders to make certain that they hold everybody accountable to the way they prepare and, ultimately, the way they play. So if we really have the kind of locker room and chemistry that I think we have, then we should play very well, and if we play very well, we’re capable of beating anybody in the country. If we don’t, then we can lose to anybody.

“You put it heavily on your players to prepare the right way -- especially your seniors and your leaders -- to make certain that everybody across the board is doing the little things the right way.”

Odds and ends

This is a conference game for Notre Dame -- if they were playing UMass in hockey. The Irish and Minutemen are conference-mates in Hockey East…This is the first meeting between Notre Dame and UMass on the football field. UMass is the 72nd program to play against the Irish in Notre Dame Stadium. From 1930-2008, only nine teams – USC, Purdue, Texas, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Clemson, Florida State and Clemson – defeated the Irish in their Notre Dame Stadium debut. Since 2009, four of six teams making their first appearance in Notre Dame defeated the Irish – Connecticut (2009), Tulsa (2010), South Florida (2011) and Louisville (2014)…Notre Dame will play two teams from Massachusetts in 2015. Notre Dame takes on Boston College in Boston’s Fenway Park on Nov. 21…Notre Dame is 5-0 against teams currently in the Mid-American Conference, although this is just the second time the Irish have played a current MAC team. The Irish defeated Western Michigan, 44-20, in 2010…By Notre Dame defeating Texas, Virginia and Georgia Tech to open the 2015 season, the Irish became the first program to do so since Northwestern defeated Syracuse, Vanderbilt and Boston College to open the 2012 season…C.J. Prosise enters the UMass game ranked fifth in the country in rushing with 451 yards and seventh in yards per carry (7.64)…Will Fuller leads the FBS with five touchdown receptions. He also ranks fifth with 397 receiving yards…In each of the first two drives against Texas, Virginia and Georgia Tech, Notre Dame’s defense has forced a three-and-out…Notre Dame has out-scored its first three 2015 opponents in the first quarter, 33-0.

Prister’s breakdown

The No. 6-ranked Irish face the ultimate “sandwich game” Saturday when they square off against the UMass Minutemen, a program that has won just five times in its last 38 games, including a 3-11 mark in the second year of the second stint by head coach Mark Whipple in Amherst.

Make no mistake, the Minutemen have become a competitive group in short order under Whipple, whose squad lost by three to Colorado and Vanderbilt last year while also taking on Power 5 programs Boston College (30-7) and Penn State (48-7). The 2014 UMass season was earmarked by close losses, including a five-point loss to Bowling Green, a one-point loss to Miami (Ohio), and a seven-point setback at Toledo.

UMass added another close loss last week to Temple in a 25-23 setback against the Owls, who needed a 10-play, 50-yard drive and a field goal with 12 seconds remaining to squeeze out the victory.

The Minutemen should be competitive with the Irish, who are coming off an emotional 30-22 victory over Georgia Tech and travel to Clemson, S.C. next week to take on the undefeated Tigers, who have won 39 of their last 44 games in Clemson Stadium.

UMass does a few things well, mainly on the offensive side of the football where quarterback Blake Frohnapfel and wide receiver Tajae Sharpe highlight an improving unit, which boasts an offensive line with 96 combined starts.

The Minutemen have really struggled on the defensive side of the ball, allowing a whopping 33 points per game each of the past two seasons, and then surrendering 48 points and 390 yards rushing in the ’15 season-opener against Colorado.

In games like these, it’s usually the home favorite that controls the flow/outcome with the upstart determining just how much of a fight it’s willing to put up against the physically-superior team.

Six of its 14 games under Whipple, who led UMass to a Division 1-AA championship 17 years ago, have been decided by a touchdown or less; Boston College, Penn State, Buffalo and Colorado have defeated UMass by three touchdowns or more.

If the Irish can slow the Frohnapfel-Sharpe combination and take advantage of the significant edge with its offensive line against an undersized defensive front, this too can become a one-sided game. With three 200-yard-plus rushing efforts to open the 2015 season, Notre Dame should easily surpass that mark and could approach the 300-yard barrier.

UMass has struggled to run the football against quality competition. Without a running game to balance the attack, Notre Dame will easily pull away in this game.

The most-watched aspect of this game from a Notre Dame perspective will be its ability to contain the UMass passing attack. The Irish had difficulty doing that the last time they played a legit aerial game, which was two weeks ago at Virginia. Quarterback Matt Johns gave the Irish trouble when the Cavaliers weren’t going three-and-out, and Brian Kelly emerged from that game dissatisfied with the play of the Irish secondary.

Now that option football is in Notre Dame’s rearview mirror – at least until Navy comes to town in two weeks – cornerbacks KeiVarae Russell and Cole Luke, and safeties Elijah Shumate and Max Redfield, will be under the microscope with the notable passing attacks of Clemson and USC right around the corner. Frohnapfel threw 55 times last week against Temple, and if the UMass ground game struggles, Whipple won’t be afraid to throw it virtually every down. (Note: 70.0 percent of UMass’ snaps against Temple – including a sack -- were designed passes.)

Contrary to two weeks ago when Virginia quarterback Matt Johns showed the escapability to hurt the Irish even with a pass rush, Frohnapfel – at 6-foot-6, 238 pounds – is not nearly as mobile. He was sacked 28 times last year and four times in two games this year.

Under Brian Kelly, the Irish are 4-4-1 against the spread when at least a 20-point favorite, but just 2-4-1 in a similar setting inside Notre Dame Stadium. Clearly, the Irish have the manpower to blow out the Minutemen.

Mark Whipple and his team, however, have other ideas as UMass becomes the 72nd program to play the Fighting Irish in Notre Dame Stadium. Incredibly, four of the last six first-time visitors have defeated Notre Dame. The upset is quite unlikely, but a competitive effort by the Minutemen is not.

The best-case scenario for the Irish is an early lead that allows some backups to be mixed in during the first 30 minutes, a late first-half/early second-half score or two to widen the advantage, and a much-needed rest for the offensive line, defensive linemen Sheldon Day and Isaac Rochell, linebackers Joe Schmidt and Jaylon Smith and – for once – a healthy exit from the game.

Notre Dame moves to 4-0 with a showdown at Clemson up next.

Pointspread: Notre Dame by 29; over-under 59
Prediction: Notre Dame 44, Massachusetts 17
2015 Season Record: 2-1 straight up; 0-3 vs. points; 1-2 over-under

Who did the rest of the staff pick? Top Stories