NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Notre Dame flirted with the school record for total offense in its demolition of Massachusetts, keeping the Irish perfect through September for the third time in the past four years. Yet for all the pyrotechnics in the 62-27 rout, the best of Notre Dame may have come from its punter.
With the Irish listing into the second quarter under a crush of Minutemen gadget plays, Tyler Newsome flipped the blowout switch when he pinned UMass at its one-yard line in a one-point game.
Threatened by the shadow of its own goalposts, UMass meekly went three-and-out before punting to freshman CJ Sanders at midfield.
Special teams coach Scott Booker had promised Notre Dame during the week that it could score from this scenario. Sanders made sure the Irish assistant wasn’t proven a liar, darting 48 yards for his first career touchdown in a game where four different Notre Dame freshmen scored.
It was Notre Dame’s first punt return touchdown since Golden Tate in 2009.
“They haven’t seen that in a while,” Sanders said. “I just told my guys just to give me some time to make a play. I was just happy I was able to make it happen.”
The Irish mauled the Minutemen from there as eight different players scored and the defense adjusted at halftime to hold UMass to 36 yards in the third quarter. Brian Kelly even got to empty his bench, including freshman quarterback Brandon Wimbush, who proved you actually can overthrow Will Fuller.
Notre Dame finished with 681 yards total offense with 457 of that coming on the ground. Both were Kelly-era bests as the Irish ground game pummeled the Minutemen with Holtz-ian menace. The rushing output was Notre Dame’s best since putting 458 on Purdue 23 years ago.
CJ Prosise finished with 149 yards and two scores, Josh Adams added 133 and a score and Dexter Williams went for 48 and his first college touchdown.
The Irish did all that without Tyler Luatua (concussion) and Corey Robinson (knee sprain) as Kelly continues to mix and match personnel with a roster already down five starters to season-ending injuries. Kelly said Luatua will likely be back for Clemson. Robinson hurt his knee in pregame.
“We know who we are, but there’s way more that we can do,” said Nick Martin. “We’re not playing to the best of our capability.”
That applied to a defense out of sorts in the first half as UMass hit for a couple gadget plays while Notre Dame got used to life with a reshuffled secondary. Matthias Farley started at safety over Max Redfield, who still played. Linebacker Greer Martini, who led the Irish with eight tackles, seemed to be the new dime back with Drue Tranquill lost for the year.
After punting on its first three drives, UMass scored touchdowns on its next three.
But on the six possessions following Newsome’s 52-yard punt that Devin Butler downed at the one-yard line, the Minutemen ran 25 plays for 66 yards and three first downs. One of those came via a personal foul against Isaac Rochell.
“Attention to detail,” said Jaylon Smith. “It was just a matter of we know that we messed up. We had a lot of confidence in knowing that we were gonna go out and get the job done.”
DeShone Kizer, making his second career start, finished 15-of-22 for 207 yards, two touchdowns (Fuller and Chris Brown) and one interception. Wimbush went 3-of-5 for 17 yards to go with his 92 yards rushing.
Kelly is now 17-1 at Notre Dame when starting a freshman or red-shirt freshman quarterback.
“I thought DeShone missed some throws today,” Kelly said. “But he knows what to do and how to do it. He can self-correct, which is the great thing about that young man, after making a couple of poor throws.”
Kizer closed by completing his final five passes, including a 37-yarder to freshman tight end Alize Jones. By the midpoint of the third quarter Kizer was out, replaced by Wimbush as Kelly wanted to prepare the next quarterback in before Notre Dame heads to Clemson next week.
Wimbush barely overthrew Fuller on his first pass for a potential 50-yard pickup, had a 56-yard touchdown to Equanimeous St. Brown wiped out by penalty and made sure his 58-yard touchdown run counted.
“As you can see, he’s athletic,” Kelly said. “He can throw the ball deep. Will did not make that catch that he threw down the field, but he's capable of pushing the ball down the field as well as running the football. We'll continue to work with him, and he's got a lot of talent.”
So does Notre Dame.
How all that talent best fits together remains a puzzle Kelly must complete, maybe by next Saturday night in South Carolina.
The Irish head coach can continue that project with a perfect record. That’s exactly where Notre Dame wants to be, even if Saturday’s performance against UMass wasn’t the most direct route.