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UMass faces mountain of opponent in No. 6 Notre Dame



Laste modified: Saturday, October 10, 2015
AMHERST— UMass coach Mark Whipple knows Notre Dame has lost some key guys, but after studying tape, the absence of those six players didn’t make him feel anymore confident.

“They don’t look too injured to me. They recruit pretty good,” Whipple said smirking. “They’re really talented.”

The Fighting Irish, who host UMass on Saturday, lost quarterback Malik Zaire (ankle), as well as defensive lineman Jarron Jones (MCL), cornerback Shaun Crawford (ACL), running back Tarean Folston (ACL), tight end Durham Smythe (MCL) and safety Drue Tranquill (ACL) for the season.

Prior to last week’s Temple game, Whipple called the Owls “the best team UMass had faced” since he’d returned to Amherst. But he’d often add a qualifier: “I may change that next week.”

Next week is now this week and he’s fulfilled that promise.

Notre Dame “may be the best team in the country and they’re at home. You can’t give them anything easy. They’re going to take what they can get. They have skill everywhere. Their front seven is tremendous and their back end is really good,” Whipple said. “We just have to try to do our thing. When we come out of it, I’m sure we’ll be a better football team. I know we’re a better team now than before we played Temple. We have to make another jump like we did from the first week.”

Time & location: 3:30 p.m. South Bend, Indiana.

Records: Notre Dame is 3-0. UMass is 0-2.

Last week: The Irish beat No. 14 Georgia Tech, 30-22. UMass lost to Temple, 25-23.

All-time series: This is the teams’ first meeting.

TV: NBC

Radio: WWEI-FM (105.5)

When UMass has the ball: Against three top-level opponents, the Irish defense has been pretty stingy. It’s allowed just 171.0 yards passing and 134.3 yards rushing. While Whipple will try to get his stagnant running game going, the Minutemen will almost certainly have quarterback Blake Frohnapfel throw it often, especially if they fall behind. Notre Dame has yet to corral an interception, but has six sacks in the three games.

UMass will present a totally different look than what Notre Dame saw last week as Georgia Tech runs a triple option.

“Offensively, (UMass is) very difficult to defend. They do so many things. Mark takes a lot of his background in college but also his NFL background and does a lot of things with motions and movements and formations,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “So it will be a great challenge and a real change from what we were working on last week compared to this week. It will be a big transition for us defensively. You know Frohnapfel, Tajae Sharpe, two very dangerous players. Blake is a very good quarterback, throws it well, has got escapability. Stands in the pocket. Knows what he’s doing. And I think Tajae Sharpe, one of the better receivers we’ll see all year.”

Kelly continued to praise Sharpe later in his press conference.

“He’s been a featured player in their offense for the last three years, so we just have to minimize the big-play opportunities. He’s going to get the football. He’s going to make catches. We have to limit the game-wrecking opportunity,” Kelly said. “So one of our words, the vernacular for us is, make sure he’s not a game-wrecker. And he’ll get his catches but we’ve got to minimize the big plays that he gets.”

Junior Jaylon Smith is among the nation’s best linebackers and leads the Irish defense. He has 23 tackles and one sack. Former walk-on, turned starter, turned standout linebacker Joe Schmidt has 22 tackles and another sack.

Whipple said sustaining drives is critical to staying in the game.

“We have to be in manageable third-down situations. We have to make first downs,” he said. “It’s not a game where we can go three and out and take 20 seconds off the clock. We have to move the ball and make some plays.”

When Notre Dame has the ball: Sophomore DeShone Kizer will be making his second career start at quarterback in place of Zaire, who fractured his ankle against Virginia. But Kizer will have plenty of help around him.

C.J. Prosise is making just his third start at running back Saturday, but he’s fifth in the nation with 451 yards rushing and four touchdowns. Look for the Irish to try and use their sizable offensive line to grind down the Minutemen, who struggled to stop the run at Colorado.

When Notre Dame passes, Will Fuller figures to get plenty of attention. The junior receiver has 18 catches for 397 yards. His five TD catches leads the nation.

Kizer was 21 for 30 for 242 yards, a touchdown and an interception against Georgia Tech.

Whipple sounded uncertain about nose tackle Robert Kitching’s status on Wednesday. If he’s out the UMass defensive line, which already figures to have its hands full against the big Irish front, could have further problems.

CONNECTIONS: Kelly is a Massachusetts native. He was born in Everett and played college football at Assumption College in Worcester. Former UMass coach Charley Molnar worked for him at Cincinnati and Notre Dame.

Notre Dame football sport information director Leigh Torbin is a UMass alum. UMass offensive line coach Shane Waldron was a graduate assistant at Notre Dame from 2005-07.

Thirteen Minutemen share hometowns or were high school teammates with players for the Irish.

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage