• It wasn’t that Notre Dame scored 62 points, gained 681 yards total offense, rushed for 457 and had eight different players score nine touchdowns, including four freshmen. The UMass defense was so poorly perceived coming into the game that it was expected that the Fighting Irish would lay the lumber to the Minutemen.
But consider that for the fourth game in a row – and with the exception of a handful of short-yardage plays in the Virginia game – Notre Dame’s offensive line has controlled/dominated the line of scrimmage virtually every step of the way.
For the last few years – particularly since the arrival of Harry Hiestand as offensive line coach – we’ve talked about the prowess of the unit and the potential for line dominance. Then the season would commence – yada, yada, yada -- and it would all prove to be a lie. Lots of bluster; not enough interior dominance.
Ultimately, we’ll know a lot more about the entire Notre Dame team one week from now when the Irish clash with the Tigers at Clemson. But there’s very little doubt that this is the best offensive line Hiestand has produced, and although they probably won’t dominate Clemson the way they have other opponents, that’s one helluva unit, one of the most gifted in Notre Dame history, and now they have a true breakout star running the football in C.J. Prosise.
• The question was asked before the game what quarterback DeShone Kizer could do to improve and prepare himself for what awaits at Clemson. The fact is there was nothing that could happen against an undermanned UMass team that would fully prepare him for the Clemson environment.
But one aspect he needed to tend to against UMass was a defense that was going to attempt to take Will Fuller out of the equation. Mark Whipple’s defense employed some double zone on Fuller, rolling a safety over the top, which made many throws to Fuller risky, even with his tremendous pass-catching prowess.
Kizer – still an inexperienced quarterback – did not force the football to Fuller. Fuller finished with four catches for 57 yards and, in truth, would have passed the 100-yard mark on a deep ball from Brandon Wimbush had he been able to secure it as he slid and rolled around on the turf. Kizer also was an interception victim, only because Fuller let a catchable ball pop out of his hands into UMass’ Trey Dudley-Giles.
To Kizer’s credit, he truly found the open man, connecting with slot man Amir Carlisle five times for 52 yards while putting three in the hands of Alize’ Jones and two more to Chris Brown, including a beautifully thrown fade that Brown aggressively attacked in the end zone for his second touchdown of the season which, hard to believe, is a career high.
Between Kizer and Wimbush, seven different players caught a combined 18 passes, so while the rushing attack was accounting for 457 yards, the passing game was a competent 18-of-28 for 224 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Getting Wimbush meaningful snaps was important, and he responded by connecting on 3-of-5 passes for modest yardage (19 yards) in addition to his four carries for 92 yards, one of which was a 58-yard touchdown run.
Speaking of Brown, the Irish just may be developing a legitimate complement to Fuller, which is another steppingstone as the Irish reach for greatness.
• By my unofficial count, Notre Dame went more than six games/24 quarters and 177 passes in between interceptions. Drue Tranquill had been the last one to make a pick, and that came on the last play of the second quarter against Louisville in the 11th regular-season game of 2014.
The Irish finally broke the streak on a pass tipped by Matthias Farley that Cole Luke made a play on in the waning seconds of the third quarter. That’s a long time to go without an interception, and the issues on the back end of the Notre Dame defense haven’t changed, even with the ton of playing experience that safeties Elijah Shumate and Max Redfield have accrued at this stage of their careers.
Brian Kelly said after the game he was upset with the safeties lack of run support in the first half, particularly when Marquis Young snapped off an 83-yard first-quarter touchdown run. Redfield – who didn’t start the game after missing the Georgia Tech game with a broken thumb – had just entered when Blake Frohnapfel hit Shakur Nesmith for a 56-yarder on a flea-flicker that set up the score to make it a 21-20 Notre Dame lead.
Next week at Clemson with a raucous, partisan Tiger crowd, the Irish will not be able to get away with mistakes like that and expect to remain unscathed. Notre Dame’s safeties still continue to be a concern for the Irish. They’re vulnerable to trick plays and each of Notre Dame’s eight remaining regular-season opponents know it. Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson will be the next to attack them.
• In less than 13 quarters and on his 65th carry of the season, C.J. Prosise’s 57-yard first-quarter touchdown run was the 10th of the young season in which he’s gained at least 15 yards. He became the first Irish running back to rush for more than 100 yards three straight weeks since Darius Walker in 2005. It nearly was four in a row, but he fell two yards short against Texas.
Clearly, Prosise has so much running room behind the Irish offensive line that he can pick and choose his path and employ that magical footwork of his. Every week, defenders are bouncing off of him and/or he’s carrying a pile of about a dozen or so players from both teams as defenses simply can’t bring him to the turf.
With his 15-carry, 149-yard effort against UMass, he’s now rushed for an even 600 yards on 74 carries for a sparkling 8.1-yard average while maintaining an 1,800-yard regular-season pace. Vagas Ferguson, who totaled 1,437 yards in the 11-game 1979 season, holds the Irish record for rushing yards in a season. They didn’t count bowl games for rushing totals back then and the Irish didn’t go to a bowl game that season anyway despite a 7-4 record. (Notre Dame was still selective about post-season play back then.)
Prosise needed the time off in the second half. He’s nicked up. His body language says that when he’s on the sideline, although he’s careful not to show it between the white lines. It was imperative that freshmen Josh Adams and Dexter Williams combined for 20 of Notre Dame’s 51 carries. Prosise came into the game with exactly half (59) of Notre Dame’s 118 carries through three games. Against UMass, he had 15 of the 51 rushing attempts, or just 29.4 percent of their carries.
Against a team like Clemson and the magnitude of the game, Kelly likely will “red-line” Prosise, which means he carries as much as he has to. But it was good to be able to pull back on the reins in the second half – Prosise carried just four times after halftime – and allow those two youngsters to combine for 181 yards, 133 of which belonged to Adams.