On paper, Notre Dame did everything you’d expect on Saturday afternoon. The Irish’s dominant 62-27 victory looked every bit the lopsided win you would’ve expected from a 30-point favorite, with Notre Dame running for 457 yards and scoring 62 points, the first time over 60 since Lou Holtz pasted Rutgers in 1996.
So while most scoffed when Brian Kelly did his best to tell everyone this Tuesday that Notre Dame couldn’t afford to look past the Minutemen, the Irish head coach was also telling the truth.
The Minutemen delivered. At least for the game’s first 25 minutes.
Late in the second quarter, UMass was outgaining the Irish. They had 261 yards of offense and were averaging 9.0 yards a play, thanks to a 56-yard pass and an 83-yard touchdown run. They led the turnover battle and also scored touchdowns in both their red zone appearances.
Yet they were still down a point.
From there, the Irish pulled away, capitalizing on a great series of events on special teams. Tyler Newsome pinned UMass inside their one-yard-line. CJ Sanders followed some great blocking and scored Notre Dame’s first punt return touchdown since Golden Tate. And after the Irish put up seven points on the first series after halftime, the route was on. And when the onslaught stopped, the Irish put together a 34-point run that turned Saturday afternoon into a track meet.
Notre Dame accomplished all of their goals this afternoon, setting up an undefeated showdown next weekend in Death Valley as the Irish travel to Clemson.
Let’s find out what else we learned.
Notre Dame’s depth is overwhelming.
Brian Kelly made quite a statement this preseason when he was asked how his 2015 team matched up with the 2012 team that played for a national championship. Kelly said this team was deeper and more athletic than the team that went 12-1. And we saw that on display this afternoon.
In the 62-27 victory, Notre Dame showcased the bottom-half of their roster, a group of players who may be short on experience but are very heavy on athleticism and talent. The Irish offense had its way with UMass from the start, with DeShone Kizer, C.J. Prosise and Will Fuller doing what you’d expect. But when the reserves started getting snaps, the dominance kept coming.
We got a look at Notre Dame’s bright future on Saturday afternoon. And while some fans may have turned the channel during garbage time, Kelly knew how important it was to see young players like Brandon Wimbush and Dexter Williams get opportunities.
Wimbush showcased his rocket arm on a deep ball to Will Fuller. (First called a 50-yard completion before replay overturned the call.) Williams showed a nice burst on the first touchdown run of his career, a 14-yard run that was the highlight of a seven-carry afternoon. Josh Adams went over 100 yards, a 70-yard touchdown the latest highlight for the freshman.
Defensively, Brian VanGorder’s backups got an opportunity to play all of the fourth quarter. Linebackers Greer Martini and Nyles Morgan ate up tackles almost immediately, collecting 15 combined. Te’von Coney played big minutes as well, while young cornerbacks Nick Coleman and Nick Watkins mixed into the secondary.
Getting those snaps is crucial in a game like this. And it also allowed the Irish to make progress even with the back-ups in, showcasing the impressive talent that Kelly and his staff have stockpiled as the program continues to build.
The Irish’s first half defense leaves quite a few unanswered questions heading into Clemson.
Yes, Brian Kelly told us that UMass would challenge Notre Dame’s defense in the first half. But did anybody really believe him?
That the Irish were on pace to give up over 500 yards of offense to the Minutemen has to have people a little worried as Notre Dame prepares to take on Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson. And the early holes in the Irish defense will likely have Brian VanGorder at the greaseboard all night looking for a fix.
Led by Blake Frohnapfel and Tajae Sharpe, the UMass offense has some talent. And Mark Whipple’s use of unbalanced fronts and heavy-doses of screens and draws kept the Irish off-balance before they settled down in the second half.
At 22-21, most Irish fans were grumbling. But if you’re looking for a silver lining, it’s the recover the Irish made after halftime.
In the third quarter, UMass had the ball four times. They gained a total of 51 yards, punting twice, then turning the ball over to Notre Dame twice, once on downs the other time courtesy of a Matthias Farley tip and Cole Luke interception.
That’s a much-needed step forward after a slow start. But 21 early points and two game-changing big plays allowed are cause for concern with one of the toughest challenges of the season awaiting the Irish next Saturday.
Notre Dame’s special teams—that’s right, the special teams—triggered this victory.
Time to once again tip the cap to Scott Booker and the Irish special teams. It was Notre Dame’s third unit that played a huge role in breaking this game open, something we don’t always say. And it all started with punter Tyler Newsome.
Newsome had a monster day this afternoon, not exactly something you equate with winning. But the first-year punter averaged 52.4 yards a kick, good for the single-game record in school history.
While two of those five punts ended up in the end zone, it was the one that Devin Butler pinned inside the one-yard line that triggered Notre Dame’s explosion. The Irish defense got a three-and-out from UMass and then excellent blocking on the punt return, setting up CJ Sanders with open real estate in front of him. The freshman did the rest, zig-zagging his way through the Minutemen, following his blocks into the end zone for a 50-yard touchdown.
We’ve gotten used to Notre Dame’s excellent kick coverage, with the Irish once again doing a good job on punts and kickoffs. Add to it Jarrett Grace and Greer Martini sniffing out a fake punt by the Minutemen and even Justin Yoon’s missed extra point (the hold didn’t look perfect) can’t sour a great day by the special teams.
Notre Dame has established its offensive identity with a power running game.
Notre Dame ran for 457 yards on Saturday, the most since 1996, when Lou Holtz was still running the option. And the Irish ground game was consistently dominant, there from the opening minutes of the afternoon.
C.J. Prosise ran for 149 yards and two touchdowns, then took the afternoon off after 15 carries. Josh Adams went for 133, his 70-yard score pushing him past Prosise as he averaged 10.2 yards a carry. Dexter Williams was the low man on the totem pole, and he averaged 6.9 a touch, showing great explosiveness and good vision running behind a dominant offensive line.
Each played a key part in Notre Dame’s offensive attack, something Kelly wanted to see as they put together this week’s game plan.
“I think we had made that decision that even last week, that we probably redlined C.J. a little bit, and we had to really get Josh involved early, which we did, and then it was nice to see him run well,” Kelly said. “And then Dexter 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.”
On the day, the Irish averaged nine yards a carry against the Minutemen. Take away the 20-yard team loss when Sam Mustipher rocketed a snap over Brandon Wimbush’s shoulder and that average would’ve been 9.5.
Heading into the toughest road contest on the schedule, the Irish ground game seems to be hitting on all cylinders. That was reflected in Notre Dame’s improvement on third down, converting 8 of 13. It’s also a credit to an offensive line that bullied and pushed around UMass from the opening snap. Again, Clemson is a different beast, and the rebuilt Tiger defense looked impressive against Louisville.
But getting all three backs significant carries—and just as importantly, success—was crucial. So was allowing Prosise some time to rest. Because come next weekend, the Irish are going to ask Prosise to carry the load. And you can bet he and the offensive line will be up for the challenge.
Getting Brandon Wimbush experience this afternoon was critical. But DeShone Kizer will determine whether or not Notre Dame can run this pre-bye week gauntlet undefeated.
In case you didn’t know heading into today, Brandon Wimbush is an exciting player. He’s got the arm strength to overthrow Will Fuller on a go-route and the speed to nearly run for 100 yards, coming up eight yards shy on just four carries.
Wimbush showcased why his future is tantalizingly bright on Saturday. He officially completed three of five passes, yet two throws that didn’t count—the replay overturn on the Fuller deep ball and the flag erasing Equanimeous St. Brown‘s touchdown—give you a better idea of his playmaking ability.
But equally clear is the fate of this team will be decided by DeShone Kizer. The sophomore didn’t play perfect in his second start, but he kept taking positive strides on Saturday afternoon, putting together a solid day at the office completing 15 of 22 for two touchdowns.
Kizer did throw another interception, a slight underthrow on a deep post to Fuller, who had one-on-one coverage until a safety came over late. (Kelly put that on Fuller, a grab the All-American understandably should make). Kizer also showed some shaky accuracy, skipping a few curl routes at receivers’ feet, throws that should be easy completions.
But you can also see the game slowing down for Kizer. Sure, part of that was UMass’s defense. But the rest is Kizer understanding what a defense is showing him, and the cerebral first-year player is taking advantage.
“One thing about him is that if you do a good job of showing him something, he’s going to pick it up,” Kelly said. “If you remind him about it, he can self-correct. Some can’t. Some need more film. Some need more repetition. He’s not that kind of guy.”
So while Wimbush showed some flashes of talent, Kizer will be asked to lead this team to victory. And while he wasn’t given much of a challenge on Saturday, he’ll be pushed to the max next weekend.