BEVY OF ‘BACKS
Call it a post-Holtzian record. A post-Halcyon record, if you prefer.
Notre Dame’s 457 net rushing yards – that total despite a 20-yard loss on an errant snap – is the most at the program since September 26, (yes) 1992 when Thunder and Lightning, Jerome Bettis and Reggie Brooks rumbled through Purdue en route to an 48-0 victory.
Six rushing scores were included in Saturday’s carnage but more important, for the first time since a season-opening win over Texas, Notre Dame’s offensive backfield wasn’t a one-man show.
“I think we probably redlined C.J. a bit,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly of senior C.J. Prosise’s 22 carry, 198-yard effort vs. Georgia Tech. “We had to really get Josh involved early, which we did, and then it was nice to see him run well.
“Dexter (Williams) obviously is a very gifted player and we saw that today. He’s got great speed. He’s just still learning but I think we all saw today what kind of athletic ability he has.”
“Josh” refers to Josh Adams, he of the 133 yards on 13 carries, a total punctuated by a 70-yard sprint and score late, but one built upon a handful of second quarter carries with the Irish clinging to a 14-13 lead.
“We trust him, he’s a hell of a ‘back,” said center Nick Martin of Adams. “He can run and he showed his speed today. He’s a bigger guy (almost 6’2” 212 lbs.), too.”
Also showcasing his speed was Prosise, leading the Irish with 149 yards and two touchdowns on just 15 carries – his final tote resulting in a 16-yard score with more than 12 minutes remaining in the third quarter.
“I looked up and there was one play where he turned the corner and I thought, ‘Okay, he’s going to the house,’ said Martin. “He put on – I don’t even know what gear it was – and he scored. He’s unbelievable.”
Prosise has compiled 600 yards and six touchdowns through four games, averaging a robust 8.1 yards per carry. Asked about the season’s breakout star to date, Kelly first lauded the tutelage of first-year running backs coach Autry Denson then added, “The athlete himself is a natural runner of the football.”
Backup quarterback Brandon Wimbush added 92 yards including a 58-yard touchdown run while the aforementioned Williams produced 48 with a 14-yard score included therein. Starting quarterback DeShone Kizer added a touchdown among his 42 yards on nine carries. Kizer also ran for four first downs.
A funny thing happened on the way to Saturday afternoon’s blowout: a football game broke out, at least for the contest’s first 27 minutes.
Then freshman C.J. Sanders accomplished something no other Kelly-era player had to date: he returned an opponent’s unblocked punt for a touchdown – 50 yards to extend Notre Dame’s lead to 28-20 with 3:21 remaining in the first half.
Sixteen game minutes later, Notre Dame led 55-20.
“They run it back and kind of took the wind out of our sails,” said Massachusetts head coach Mark Whipple. “And then I made a bad call on a fake punt, trying to just get something going. But I don’t think all those things would have mattered. They were just better than us.”
Senior Jarrett Grace and sophomore Greer Martini combined to stop punter Logan Laurent after just three yards on a 4th-and-8 fake punt rush on UMass’s first drive of the second half.
Augmenting the specialty units’ efforts throughout was redshirt-freshman punter Tyler Newsome, whose quintet of punts netted 262 yards, a 52.4 per punt average – the five traveled 59, 52, 57, 49, and 45 yards, respectively. None of Newsome’s kickoffs were returned beyond the touchback-mandated 25-yard line.
“I really don’t want to compromise our coverage and out-punt the coverage,” said the cannon-legged Newsome. “But when I do over-punt it, they do a great job running down there.
“God’s blessed me with natural ability and I’ve tried to build on that,” he said of improvement since he stepped on campus in the summer of 2014. “I love going in the weight room, tearing it up. They have a great weight program here and I’ve tried to get as strong as I can and work on my explosiveness and I think that has a lot to do with it.”
Newsome added a solo tackle on a kickoff.
Not expected in Saturday’s storyline was the whopping 276 yards allowed by the Irish defense in the contest’s first half. Thereafter? 113 aggregate yards on 26 snaps until the Minutemen’s final drive (10 plays, 77 yards) produced a late score.
“The thing that stands out to me is we challenged our football team at halftime to play to a higher standard,” said Kelly. “Gave up two big plays in the first half that we weren’t pleased with, a lead draw that we’ve got to fit better (an 83-yard touchdown run), and certain the reverse pass where we just – we lost our focus on that play.
“I think everybody would say that UMass presents some unique problems,” Kelly offered. “They do a very good job with their scheme. I think we played better in the second half. We transitioned out of option last week. Probably a little bit of a slow start, finished strong.”
Notre Dame finished the contest with nine tackles for loss while breaking up seven passes and picking off its first pass of 2015. Magnifying the nine tackles for loss were another nine that limited UMass to gains of 0, 1, or two yards.
“We still did okay in the first half but they had a couple plays and when that happens, they get confidence. You have to make a couple plays to stop that,” said senior KeiVarae Russell. “They started gaining confidence and of course they’re a little (underdog) that does a little trick play, and then they have ultimate confidence after that. You just have to come together.”
The Irish defense limited their visitors to just two third-down conversions in their first 13 attempts (a full three quarters) en route to a 55-20 lead.
KIZER ON A ROLL…
On third down, that is.
After missing his first attempt to move the chains, an incomplete pass on 3rd-and-4 to classmate Nic Weishar, the redshirt-freshman triggerman proved potent when faced with the sport’s most important down.
Including a three-yard rush on 3rd-and-1, Kizer helped the Irish convert six of their next seven third-down opportunities, hitting five passes for a handful of first downs while escaping for a 13-yard gain just short of the sticks. (A Prosise run accounts for the remainder.)
Kizer missed just seven of 22 throws on the afternoon (some ugly in nature), but only his initial attempt to Weishar occurred on third down, thereafter completing four straight to four different receivers en route to a pair of touchdowns that put the contest out of reach.
“Simply put, you’ve got to be out there ripping the ball,” said Kizer when informed that Kelly noted the ability to “self-correct” is one of his quarterback’s most important traits. “You’ve got to have complete confidence in every throw that you have, and those couple (incomplete) balls that were low, I didn’t really rip it like I wanted to, just simply because I didn’t have the mindset and the confidence of getting the ball out there.”
Confidence and self-correction will prove crucial in the days and weeks to come. The 4-0 Irish head to Death Valley to take on No. 10 Clemson next Saturday night.