Blake Frohnapfel

And in that corner… The UMass Minutemen

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Notre Dame welcomes UMass to campus this weekend, the first ever meeting between the two schools in football. And while the game looks like a potentially lopsided affair on paper, Brian Kelly was quick to throw water on those expectations during his Tuesday press conference.

“These are the games that concern me the most where everybody else thinks that they are going to be easy games,” Kelly said. “This is going to be a difficult game. UMass will play very well.”

When Notre Dame announced this match-up, it was set to be played against former Irish offensive coordinator Charley Molnar, who left the program to take on the challenge of bringing UMass to the FBS. Molnar was fired after two tumultuous seasons, replaced by Mark Whipple, back for his second stint in Amherst.

Earlier this summer, we caught up with the Daily Hampshire Gazette’s Matt Vautour, to talk about the state of the UMass program entering Whipple’s second season. With the Minutemen off to a hard-luck 0-2 start, we revisit that conversation, with Vautour spending some of his busy week helping us out as we prepare for the game.

Hope you enjoy.

 

Notre Dame fans likely didn’t notice, but UMass lost last week in excruciatingly painful fashion, with a blocked PAT returned for a score making it possible for Temple to escape with a victory. What emotional state do we find Mark Whipple’s troops?

I’m honestly curious. They’ve seemed pretty resilient this week, but that can’t be easy.

The past two years haven’t been kind to UMass in close games. (You wrote about that in the wake of Saturday’s loss.) Is it a reach to say playing an opponent nobody expects the Minutemen to beat… is actually a good thing? The Irish played down to the competition against Virginia, likely looking ahead to Georgia Tech. They travel to Clemson next week. It’s early in the week, but you’ve got to expect Whipple to play that angle.

Whipple has certainly talked about the Irish being in another class compared to anyone UMass has faced. He’s talked about playing well and improving more than a specific path to an upset win.

 

There’s considerable talent on this team, led by quarterback Blake Frohnapfel an a veteran offensive line. Yet the offense seems to have gotten off to a slow start. Any rhyme or reason for this? Any hope that they find some solutions against the Irish defense?

It’s been surprising. If the offense was sharper early they’d have beaten Temple. Uncharacteristic dropped passes and slightly overthrown balls have stunted some drives and the running game has been stagnant in the first two games. Notre Dame isn’t exactly a cure for that.

 

Colorado really hurt UMass with the running game. Notre Dame has rushed for over 200 yards in its first three games. Is that where you think the Irish should attack?

I was surprised Temple didn’t run more. UMass’ defense as a whole was much better than it was against Colorado, but I’d imagine the Irish will run a lot, especially early.

 

UMass is still in the nascent stage of being an FBS program. Mark Whipple took over for Charley Molnar, the former Irish assistant who was cited as a reason for scheduling the game in the first place. We already talked about Molnar’s early exit as the man atop the program. But what has Whipple done to turn things around, and even at 0-2, does it feel like this program is turning a corner?

I think Whipple’s system fits the personnel much better especially on offense. Getting Frohnapfel was huge for him. I do think this team will turn the corner in MAC play. The program however, will need to reboot a bit as an independent while hunting for a conference.

 

If UMass pulls off the upset on Saturday, who, why or how did they do it? And can you calculate what that win would mean to the program?

UMass would need considerable precision, luck and a big lead in turnovers gained, while Notre Dame would have to be sloppy and perhaps overconfident. For UMass an upset would be glorified for decades and would energize the fan base. The school would certainly try to leverage it in the pursuit of a new conference.

Kelly on UMass: “These are the games that concern me the most”

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With the afterglow of a big win over Georgia Tech still lingering and a trip to Clemson on the horizon, most Notre Dame fans are looking past UMass. Mark Whipple’s MAC program is already 0-2 on the season, a lopsided loser to Colorado in their opener before having a game ripped from them by Temple last weekend.

So while most are wondering if this is the week where Brandon Wimbush makes his debut at quarterback and freshmen running backs Josh Adams and Dexter Williams give C.J. Prosise a break, head coach Brian Kelly isn’t taking anything about this weekend lightly.

“These are the games that concern me the most where everybody else thinks that they are going to be easy games,” Kelly said Tuesday. “This is going to be a difficult game.

“UMass will play very well. They have already proven that they can play with top-notch teams in Temple. I already told you, they have got a power-five win over Penn State and Cincinnati. So I know what we need to do. We’ve got to play well against them.”

Against Virginia, Notre Dame was a double-digit favorite and needed to score a game-winning touchdown in the game’s final seconds to win. The line opened with the Irish 28.5 point favorites, a seemingly easy game when you consider the expectations.

But not for Kelly.

“It’s not a breather for me and I don’t count anything,” Kelly said. “It would be nice that all those things happen, but I don’t go into the game thinking that way. I go into the game (thinking) that we have got to be prepared for everything.”

Showtime first look: Emotional Tranquill earns game ball

Property of Showtime Sports
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Notre Dame safety Drue Tranquill was playing the game of his life when his season suddenly ended while celebrating a big play near the end of the first half. Tranquill suffered a torn ACL that’ll end his second-straight season with a major knee injury.

And while that injury led to some predictable scorn on the internet and in the sports-talk radio circuit, Tranquill earned the game ball from Brian Kelly, given to both the sophomore safety and the entire defense for its sterling performance against Georgia Tech’s triple-option attack.

After the game, Tranquill was the model of composure and grace, handling his injury with an incredible amount of dignity. And in probably his most telling statement, Tranquill said the following when given the opportunity to speak to his teammates.

“Today was the ultimate team game for the defense. I’m not feeling sorry for myself, man, I’m just sorry I can’t be back out there with you all,” Tranquill said. 

For a first-look at tonight’s “A Season With Notre Dame Football,” Showtime’s production cameras caught Tranquill as he addressed his teammates.

Give it a watch here:

As injuries mount, Kelly acknowledges depth chart has breaking point

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish returns a fumble against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the third quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 19, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 30-22. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Next Man In has been a bedrock philosophy for Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. But even he understands that the Irish are approaching a breaking point.

The loss of Drue Tranquill is the latest season-ending injury for the Irish, pushing the Irish coaching staff into a sticky spot at safety, the latest position group to see its depth chart tested. And as the Irish move forward this week as their focus turns to UMass, Kelly acknowledged that the Irish need to weather the storm, especially at a few key positions.

“Certainly we can’t afford to lose any more players at key positions,” Kelly said. “Quarterback, running back, you start to get into true freshmen, and that will be obviously a significant change in what we look like.”

At quarterback, true freshman Brandon Wimbush was warming up on the sidelines when Georgia Tech recovered an onside kick and held onto the football. Expect to see Wimbush this weekend, with Kelly knowing full well that he needs to get his young quarterback experience before he heads to Death Valley.

Behind C.J. Prosise, freshman Josh Adams received just three carries on Saturday. But both he and Dexter Williams will likely get a chance to wet their feet against a UMass defensive front that gave up 390 rushing yards to the Colorado Buffaloes.

With Tranquill the latest hard-luck Domer to go down, the safety position gets interesting. Avery Sebastian is still a few weeks away from returning, likely after the off week. Max Redfield stayed off the field on Saturday, both scheme and a broken hand limiting him.

That could lead to utilityman Matthias Farley stepping into the lineup, at a position that’s not exactly his natural spot. Or it could means freshman Nicco Fertitta is activated. Kelly was candid when he said he and Brian VanGorder hadn’t decided what to do yet.

“Matthias has the ability to play a couple of different positions,” Kelly explained. “Brian (VanGorder) and I have not had that personnel conversation yet relative to what will be the next move that we make there. Whether we bring somebody up into that role, or whether it’s Nicco Fertitta, or do we have (Nicky) Baratti move. We’ve got to make that decision here in the next 24 hours. I’m not really sure yet.”

The loss of Tranquill takes away an important piece of Notre Dame’s option puzzle, with Navy still to come. And with the defense already short Jarron Jones and nickel back Shaun Crawford, how this team keeps things together remains to be seen.

“There is a break point. You know, we are still at a point where we have guys that can come in and step in,” Kelly said. “But there’s no question that we have to be able to stem the tide here with these injuries.”

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Georgia Tech

Chris Milton, Will Fuller
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What a difference a day makes. The third Saturday of the college football season was a crazy one, with the happenings in South Bend far from the only eye-opening outcome on the weekend.

Alabama went down. USC lost to Stanford at home for the fourth time in their last five contests in the Coliseum. Big bad Ohio State looked far from that as they struggled to beat Northern Illinois 20-13, while future Notre Dame opponent Clemson’s defense carried the Tigers against Louisville in a closer-than-expected 20-17 win.

On a day where Colorado, Kansas State, Miami, South Alabama, Syracuse, Toledo and UTEP all won in overtime, Notre Dame served notice with its convincing 30-22 victory. The AP moved Notre Dame up to No. 6, while the coaches slid the Irish up to No. 8.

With UMass set to visit South Bend next Saturday, let’s get to the good, bad and ugly from the big Irish victory.

 

THE GOOD

The Defense. A day later, the performance of Notre Dame’s defense is just as impressive. A week after looking much more susceptible than we ever expected, the Irish were completely locked in (at least for 58 minutes and change) as they turned Georgia Tech’s well-oiled machine into a mistake-prone unit that lost its composure.

“I thought right from the start we kind of got rattled a little bit,” Paul Johnson conceded after the game. “When it wasn’t going good at first, we didn’t respond very well.

“I think you have to give Notre Dame some credit. They had something to do with that.”

A season after leading college football in third down conversion rate, Georgia Tech started 0 for 9 on 3rd down, and finished the game just three of 15. Entering the game without a three-and-out on the season, Notre Dame forced two straight to open the game.

Even more important, after starting the season 12-of-12 with a ridiculous 12 touchdowns in the red zone, Paul Johnson’s team got nothing on its first red zone appearance, scoring just twice in four appearances.

Notre Dame’s athleticism in the front seven matched Georgia Tech’s, with Joe Schmidt phenomenal from his middle linebacker spot. The schematic tweaks the Irish utilized paid immediate dividends, as Greer Martini stepped into the starting lineup and made eight tackles at outside linebacker.

Keeping Max Redfield on the sideline was a bold move, but it paid off, as Drue Tranquill put together an impressive first half working the alleys before his season was ended just before halftime. And when Matthias Farley was called into action after Tranquill went down, Farley immediately made a big play, forcing a fumble and holding his own with four tackles.

Best of all, it was finally revealed that there wasn’t just some “solution” for the option. Notre Dame’s defense succeeded by being aggressive, being multiple, and continually making changes, varying three and four-man fronts, one and two-high safeties, with the only constant aggression. And after five years of looking for a solution to the option, Kelly and company seem to have found their firmest grasp on it yet.

 

The SWAG team.

Nothing better illustrates Notre Dame’s commitment to stopping the triple-option than the SWAG team. Assembled in training camp and utilized on a near daily basis to give the starting defense consistent work against an option opponent, the SWAG team is a specialized unit comprised of walk-ons, scholarship players and scout teamers whose sole job was running Georgia Tech and Navy’s triple option.

“I’d be remiss without mentioning our swag team,” Kelly said. “That is our triple option team. They named themselves swag. It’s been kind of this thing that’s gone on since camp started. They wanted their own identity. They did such a great job preparing our defense.”

According to Kelly, SWAG stands for Students With Attitude and Game. But fancy wordplay aside, “swag” is a shortened version of swagger, and how kids these days talk about confidence, uniqueness and style.

That isn’t usually how you’d describe a group of freshmen, walk-ons and career back-ups whose job it is to get knocked around by the starting defense on a daily basis.

“The Swag team does an incredible job week in and week out. And I think they just have complete buy in,” captain Matthias Farley said after the game. “There’s guys on that team who are on scholarship and are very talented, fast and dynamic. When you have guys like that giving you a great look, they’re not down, they’re busting their tails and that gives us an incredible look.”

 

 

Notre Dame’s coaching staff. It had to feel pretty good inside the coaches’ room on Saturday evening. With just about every national pundit picking Georgia Tech to win, the self-belief in the locker room was instilled by the staff this week and carried onto the field by the players.

Notre Dame’s game plan for slowing down Georgia Tech was nine months in the making. And a continual approach to facing off with the option as opposed to one week of focus is now the way you should expect Kelly and company to move forward.

“For me personally and moving forward as we see that the option is going to be something that we see each and every year, I wanted something that definitely could be duplicated and replicated from year-to-year,” Kelly explained on Sunday.

“The way we play it, you know, is something that I want to continue to do, and we don’t have to have such a huge adjustment each year with our defensive football team. I think we may have found the right kind of balance with the way we’re teaching our kids.”

The Irish aren’t in the clear yet, especially considering Keenan Reynolds is every bit as dangerous as Justin Thomas. But this game meant something, and there was no hiding that.

We already knew about the Brian VanGorder-Paul Johnson subplot. Now add to it this little tidbit, revealed by Eric Hansen and Al Lesar in the South Bend Tribune, and it likely tasted even a little bit sweeter.

There’s a reason that Brian Kelly called this game a “program win.” I think it’s probably the most impressive regular-season victory of his time in South Bend, considering what the option did to him early in his tenure, the injuries that have accumulated and being forced to start DeShone Kizer for the first time.

 

 

 

THE BAD

Turnovers and Mistakes. Probably the most impressive thing about Saturday’s win was the fact that the Irish weren’t perfect. DeShone Kizer’s ill-advised throw to Corey Robinson was the product of a bad read by Kizer, who missed bracket coverage that forced Robinson to convert his route. It took points off the board.

Freshman tight end Alize Jones did his best to test the blood pressure of his head coach when he coughed up the football in the final minute of the first half. The defense bailed him out. And kicker Justin Yoon was shaky again, clanging one extra point off the upright and missing another completely. But Kelly sent him right back out there after halftime, and Yoon converted the kick.

Kizer, Jones and Yoon are all doing this for the first time, thrown into the deep end as the Irish have won three games against Power 5 conference opponents. So credit goes to the Irish for overcoming their mistakes and still winning the game.

The last two minutes.

With the majority of the working press bundled on the sidelines, Georgia Tech made the game interesting. Too interesting. With just a victory formation left, the Irish couldn’t get the ball back, allowing Tech to march down the field and score a touchdown, then follow it up with another score.

It didn’t get close. But it certainly got a little uncomfortable. And while Torii Hunter recovered the onside kick to end things, it took a little too long to do so.

 

THE UGLY

Drue Tranquill’s knee. You can’t help but feel horrible for Tranquill, who tore his right ACL celebrating a pass breakup before half time, his second major knee injury in as many seasons.

Tranquill was a key piece of the option package, and his loss will be felt against Navy. He’s also a piece of important depth at safety, where the Irish will be looking for considerable answers.