Offseason Q&A: UMass

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After a difficult three-game stretch to start Notre Dame’s season, the Irish will welcome UMass to South Bend, a game that was originally intended to match up former Irish offensive coordinator Charley Molnar with his previous employer.

But Molnar was replaced after two rocky years—the programs’ first after moving up to the FBS level—bringing Mark Whipple back into the fold. And while the improvement was certainly incremental, their three wins were one more than Molnar managed over two seasons.

Sandwiched in the middle of seven difficult games on consecutive weeks, UMass looks like the easiest matchup of the season. But with a veteran quarterback who may be the MAC’s best, the Minutemen are improving, adding at least a bit of intrigue into a game that lacks it on paper.

To get us up to speed on the UMass program, we bring in Matt Vautour, who covers UMass Sports for the Daily Hampshire Gazette. Matt was nice enough to answer some questions on the state of the UMass program, what went wrong with Molnar, and what we can expect when the Minutemen roll in from Amherst.

Here we go.

 

The UMass-ND game was originally set to have the Irish play against their former offensive coordinator, Charley Molnar. That won’t happen, with Molnar replaced after two seasons and as many victories. You covered Molnar’s time atop the UMass program. Can you give us an idea of what exactly went so wrong?

At the beginning, Molnar’s combination of enthusiasm and extreme confidence made him instantly popular with UMass fans, who wanted to believe his lofty promises. But once the games started things went downhill fast. On the field his spread scheme seemed ill-matched with his personnel. His play-calling and clock management were questionable.

Off the field Molnar alienated alumni, fans and eventually his own players, who resented Molnar’s unwillingness to take any of the blame for the team’s struggles. A video that went public of coach-organized boxing and wrestling matches between team members drew scorn from the school’s upper administration as well. Because UMass was in its first years as Bowl Subdivision team, he might have survived a combined 2-22 record. But by the end Molnar didn’t really have anyone in his camp.

 

The Minutemen made a modest, but impressive jump in 2014 under the leadership of veteran coach Mark Whipple, who had a very good first tour of duty as the UMass head coach at the FCS level from 1998-2003. How did Whipple steady the ship? And what should Irish fans expect from his team?

A: Whipple’s previous success combined with the fact that he wasn’t Molnar made him instantly popular again. His pro style offense seemed to better fit his roster and the entire organization of the program certainly seemed more in order. Mostly his players embraced him and played hard for him. Molnar recruited some good players and Whipple did a good job of getting better play from them. With most of the roster back, there’s optimism at UMass that this should be the best team since the FBS upgrade.

 

It looks like the UMass offense is powered by the passing game. How capable of a signal caller is Blake Frohnapfel? He’s a first-team All-MAC selection by Phil Steele, giving us a clue that he’s legit. In his second season utilizing the graduate transfer rule, what’s the ceiling for the UMass QB? Does he have a pro future?

UMass has to thank the football gods every day that Frohnapfel was available because he greatly accelerated the Minutemen’s improvement. He was a leader from his first day and is the face of the program.

He’s a smart quarterback and pretty accurate. His value was especially apparent in the last two games of the season. With Frohnapfel out with a broken leg, the UMass offense sputtered in two lopsided losses. Playing in a pro style offense for a former NFL quarterback coach will help Frohnapfel’s chances, but he’s far from a lock. He’ll need a big year and to be more accurate on longer throws.

 

Every college football fan loves some good, old-fashioned offensive MACtion. With Frohnapfel, wide receiver Tajae Sharpe and TE Rodney Mills all on Steele’s preseason first team, and a veteran returning offensive line, is it safe to say that the Minutemen’s offense is going to challenge the Irish?

For UMass to have a chance, it will have to finish drives and score enough to hang in. It will need better production from an inconsistent running game to help take the pressure of Frohnapfel and the passing attack. Notre Dame figures to be the best team the Minutemen have faced under Whipple.

 

Jovan Santos-Knox looks like a tackling machine. But it also looks like UMass could struggle to stop people, especially in the air. Notre Dame’s offense doesn’t lack for talented personnel. Is this the mismatch to watch?

To have any chance in South Bend, UMass needs its defense to play better than it did last year. The Minutemen need Santos-Knox to make fewer tackles because they’ve gotten off the field quicker.

 

Notre Dame rarely plays a MAC opponent, and most Irish fans are categorizing this game in the cupcake / purchased victory mold. Is that a dangerous stance? A few big victories (Colorado, Vandy) slipped through the Minutemen’s fingers last season. Still in their infancy, what’s the best-case scenario not just for a September Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium, but for the UMass season?

After two years of not being competitive at all, UMass’ downfall in 2014 was an inability to finish. The Minutemen could have beaten Colorado and should have beaten Vanderbilt. UMass had fourth quarter leads against Bowling Green, Miami (Ohio) and were tied with Toledo with under six minutes left.

Most of the roster is back on both sides of the ball. If they can close out games, they’ll have a very realistic shot at one of the MAC’s five bowl spots. Hanging with Notre Dame is another story however. UMass was overmatched against both Boston College and Penn State last year and the Irish figure to be better than both of them. The Minutemen will be hoping a lot of breaks go their way and Notre Dame comes out sluggish and overconfident.

Friday at 4: Notre Dame’s QB room creates a friendly trust that has been crucial to Pyne’s success

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LAS VEGAS — No one would fault Drew Pyne and Tyler Buchner if there was some friction to their relationship. The two Notre Dame quarterbacks spent the better part of a year competing against each other to be the new Irish starting quarterback. Some competitive animosity would be human nature.

Instead, the two give each other a hard time about a shared guilty pleasure. Pyne insists Buchner get his rehab work done before practice because he trusts the sophomore’s reads on the junior’s passing mechanics and wants that feedback every day, especially as Pyne readies to face the first ranked team of his starting career, against No. 16 BYU in Las Vegas on Saturday (7:30 ET; NBC). They have continued a trend of thorough tightness in Tommy Rees’ quarterback room.

Start with that shared guilty pleasure. Asked this week on the ND on NBC Podcast what his allowed luxury is, Pyne initially tried to feign innocence.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I can’t think of anything right now.”

And then an acknowledging pause struck Pyne. His eventual admission gradually slid from a rarity to a frequency, and he dragged the injured Buchner down with him.

“Tyler and I have a little bit of a sweets problem,” Pyne said. “Not a problem. But once a day probably, twice or something, if we see a small piece of candy, we’ll have it.”

Perhaps that is trivial but think back to the quarterback competition that divided the Notre Dame locker room and played a significant role in the 2016 faceplant under Brian Kelly. Neither Malik Ziare nor DeShone Kizer would have ever offered something so playful about the other.

“He and I know that there’s nothing that can get between us that can impact the team in a negative way,” Pyne said back in early August when Buchner was named Notre Dame’s starter. “… Tyler and I are really good friends, we’re best friends. We watch film together, we hang out together, we play golf together.”

Go back a year and both learned from Jack Coan how to approach the job professionally, each citing Coan’s dedication to sleep in 2021 as something they were trying to mirror in 2022’s preseason. Go back a year before that and Pyne still regularly cites Ian Book drawing inspiration from Irish mixed martial artist Conor McGregor’s mountains of self-confidence. Book was one of the first people to reach out to Pyne with encouragement when he took over for Buchner after the latter sprained his shoulder and ended his season against Marshall.

And go back to Book’s time stepping in for Brandon Wimbush a month into the 2018 season. Wimbush handled the situation so well, no one blinked when it leaked before the College Football Playoff that he intended to transfer away from Notre Dame after the season.

Credit should go to Rees. He may get — and deserve some of — plenty of criticism for his play calling. He may be partly at fault for the Irish lacking any receivers in the junior or senior classes on the current roster. But Rees’ delicate handling of the quarterback room amid three touch-and-go situations in six seasons has helped Notre Dame avoid a 2016 repeat.

Trace that back to Rees’ time as a freshman in 2010, working under offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock, who would cede the position to Mike Sanford Jr., who lasted just the 2015 and 2016 seasons.

“When I got here, Dayne Crist put his arm around me,” Rees said in August. “He was tremendous as a young quarterback, as a mentor, as a friend. We used to joke he was an older brother to me when I was here.

Andrew Hendrix and I, I was in his wedding. We were extremely close. We came in together and are still close to this day. I was supported by guys all around me that really were good, and then when I had the opportunity with Everett (Golson), I wanted to give back the same way that the older guys did it for me.”

The culture of Rees’ quarterback room has turned each quarterback competition into fertile ground for a trusting friendship.

Pyne pointed out, only he and Buchner know what it was like to go through that competition this spring and summer. They studied each other more than anyone else did, because they had more at stake, even more than the coaching staff.

Buchner is beginning to get in some workouts after shoulder surgery, and Pyne actively insists they not overlap with practice.

“I want him behind me telling me what’s going on in the defense,” Pyne said this week. “I want him to see things and come to me.

“The other thing great about him is he tells me technique-wise what I need to do because he’s seen me throw so many times, he’s seen how I’m looking with my eyes, he knows what kind of player I am. He does that to help me, tells me stuff like that every single day. I’m very thankful to still have him, and he’s in great spirits and helps the whole team.”

At some point, Rees and the Irish will need to toe this quarterback competition again. There will be plenty of wonder if one will transfer for more playing time, as is both common in college football nowadays and the appropriate move for passers who have shown their abilities on such a big stage. Pyne will have a diploma and three seasons of eligibility remaining after this year. Buchner will have three seasons, as well, though he’ll be at least a year from that diploma.

That is then, though. For now, any Pyne and Notre Dame success, including against BYU, can trace some credit back to Buchner, standing behind his friend on each practice snap and critiquing Pyne’s form, as only a friend can do.

If he does not do it in practice, he’ll do it as they sneak some sweets around the football facilities.

Things To Learn: Notre Dame needs to find a fast start for a change of pace vs BYU

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LAS VEGAS — “We’re going to get there and be very strategic on what we do,” Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman said Monday referencing the Irish trip to Sin City to face No. 16 BYU (7:30 ET; NBC). And he wasn’t referring to always splitting on aces and eights. But let’s be clear, always split on aces and eights.

He was referring to Notre Dame skipping the Strip and heading straight to Allegiant Stadium for a brief visit today before an early bed check.

But he may as well have been discussing how the Irish need to start Saturday night. In perhaps an unexpected twist, Freeman has stopped preaching about Notre Dame’s finish to games even though the Irish blew second-half leads in his first three games as head coach. While the Irish clearly did not know how to finish, focusing on that failure overlooked the bigger picture.

“All of a sudden you sit here and you talk about finishing, finishing, finishing, but you go back and evaluate and there are plays in the first quarter that we weren’t executing the way we were supposed to,” Freeman said. “That’s where me as the leader said, ‘Hold on, take all the emphasis off of finishing and really look at every play of the game.’”

Your psyche may want to focus on your net losses when you get up from the blackjack table, but the third hand after you sat down was just as important as the last. (Don’t change your bet amounts throughout a sitdown at a table. Keep those wagers consistent.)

Notre Dame’s fourth-quarter collapses at Ohio State and against Marshall overshadowed the Irish mistakes early on, but there were Irish mistakes early on.

Against the Cougars, those first-half missteps should be more avoidable than usual. Maybe it has been a lack of focus as BYU looked ahead to this game, maybe it was disrespect for two inferior opponents in Wyoming and Utah State, maybe it was a coincidence. But it cannot be argued that the Cougars led the Cowboys only 14-10 at halftime two weeks ago and were tied with the Aggies at 17 last week. Despite beating UConn to open the season, Utah State should be universally disparaged as one of the worst teams in the country. Keeping up with BYU bode only poorly for the Cougars.

And then BYU outscored the Aggies 21-3 through the first 29 minutes of the second half. (Okay, that’s a lie. It was really 28 minutes and 51 seconds, but rounding up to 29 minutes there was as unaggressive as not splitting 10s. Really, why ruin a delightful hand?)

If once is an incident, twice is a coincidence and three times a pattern, then the Cougars have a pattern of starting slowly, reaching halftime at Oregon trailing 21-7 (as part of a 41-20 loss), three weeks in a row BYU has come out of the gates slowly. No thought of looking past the Ducks can be offered for that; there was no disrespect to a top-25 team.

The Cougars’ weakness meshes well with Notre Dame’s new emphasis.

“It’s not about finishing. It’s about finishing on every play,” Freeman said. “You have to make sure you execute on play one, no matter if you’re up or down, as you do in the fourth quarter.”

(No matter if you’re up or down, stick to basic blackjack strategy.)

This is more than simple coach-speak. Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees had shown adeptness with the opening scripts in the past. Eight of Notre Dame’s 13 opening drives last season resulted in quality possessions. (Quality possession: Either a score or a first down inside the opponent’s 40-yard line.) Those created 31 points on five scores, a missed field goal, a turnover on downs and a costly interception inside the red zone against Cincinnati.

This year, only one opening Irish possession has resulted in a quality possession, a field goal in the season opener. But before the idle week, Notre Dame responded to its opening three-and-out with 10 consecutive quality possessions. To be clear, the Irish had only 11 genuine possessions in that 45-32 win. (“Genuine” ignores the final possession running out the clock.)

There is no rationale blackjack equivalent to that kind of hot streak. Heaters don’t last that long. Because when relying on cards dealt randomly, there is no force paving the way like Notre Dame’s offensive line, and there is no open highway like the Tar Heels’ defense.

“That’s what our identity has to be,” Freeman said. “We have to be able to run the ball. It’s not always going to be explosive, 10-15 yard gains, but if you’re able to move the ball with consistency and stay on track and stay in rhythm, it opens up everything in your offensive pass game.

“It’s great to see. It’s a testament to our offensive line. It starts with them. … Our offensive line continues to get better and better and better, which is really helping our run game.”

If there is any one thing to learn from this rendition of the Shamrock Series, it is if the Irish success running the ball two weeks ago was more because of North Carolina’s problems or because of Notre Dame’s development. In this unnecessary and forced analogy put into usage solely because how often does a writer have an excuse to so broadly discuss blackjack, the escalation facing the Irish is the equivalent of testing your counting abilities on an eight-deck shoe at Circa after working only with two-deck shoes in Treasure Island.

That may go badly. BYU has given up plenty of rushing yards this season, but it is leaps and bounds better than North Carolina. Count those decks wrong and you will be dissuaded from ever counting cards again.

In both cases, that should not be the takeaway. The takeaway should be returning to fundamentals, playing each hand smartly, finding holes in a good defense even if there are not as many available as there were against Gene Chizik’s unit.

“Sometimes it takes failures to really evaluate how you’re leading,” Freeman said Thursday. “It shouldn’t take that, but for me, after the Marshall game, I said hold on, let’s really look at how I am as a leader, where I can improve. …

“One of those parts was hold on, let’s stop worrying about finishing. That’s more outcome driven. ‘Let’s finish this game, we’re up in the fourth, finish the game.’ Let’s really evaluate every single play and make sure we’re executing.”

The final score matters most, just like the chips in your hand when you get up from the table. But Notre Dame needs to focus on the early hands in Las Vegas to better position itself for late in the game. That has been missing this season, and after two weeks of focusing on it, there is little excuse left for the Irish to drag their feet early at Allegiant Stadium.

How to watch Notre Dame vs BYU tomorrow and the Irish all season; TV, Peacock info for 2022

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The 11th rendition of Notre Dame’s Shamrock Series will feature the Irish against the No. 16 BYU Cougars on Saturday, October 8, at Allegiant Stadium, home of the Las Vegas Raiders. Live coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock. See below for additional information and how to watch/stream the Notre Dame vs BYU game.

Notre Dame has never lost in the Shamrock Series, its not-quite-annual trip to a neutral site. The university hosts the game and makes an event of the weekend, and the football program has delivered each and every time, be it against a ranked Arizona State in Dallas or against No. 18 Wisconsin at Soldier Field in Chicago.

The Irish (2-2) are now not only coming off an idle week, but are also just two weeks removed from beating North Carolina 45-32. Notre Dame set season highs in points, rushing yards (287), total yards (576), and first downs (35). Junior quarterback Drew Pyne finished with a career-best 24-for-34 for 289 yards and three touchdowns. After an ugly start to the season, Notre Dame’s offensive line allowed just one sack, which enabled running backs Audric Estimé and Chris Tyree to have their best performances of the season. Estimé finished with 134 rushing yards and two touchdowns while Tyree added 80 rushing yards and a touchdown and RB Logan Diggs ran for 50 yards. Head coach Marcus Freeman credited the victory to the offensive line’s performance.

“I think it’s a testament to our offensive line,” Freeman said. “It starts with them. I don’t care what running back you have back there, if your offensive line isn’t executing, blocking, to the way it has to, nobody’s gonna be able to run the ball. Our offensive line continues to get better and better and better, which is really helping out our run game.”

The BYU Cougars (4-1) are coming off a 38-26 victory over Utah State last Thursday night. Led by quarterback Jaren Hall, who has thrown 142 straight passes without an interception, BYU is making gradual progress toward a possible New Year’s Six bowl in its last season as a football independent before joining the Big 12.

 According to Cougars head coach Kalani Sitake, Hall is an exemplary leader both on and off the field.

“He is a perfect example of what it means to be a BYU football player,” Sitake said.
The quarterback position at BYU always gets a lot of public attention, and Jaren does a tremendous job handling both that spotlight on him from outside the program and the important role he plays within our program as a leader on our team. But he really settled into his role.”

How to watch Notre Dame vs BYU:

  • Where: Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas
  • When: Saturday, October 8 at 7:30 p.m. ET
  • Live Stream: NBC and Peacock

2022 Notre Dame Football Schedule:

  • Notre Dame at Ohio State – Saturday, Sept. 3  – 7:30 PM on ABC
  • Notre Dame vs. Marshall – Saturday, Sept. 10 –  2:30 PM on NBC
  • Notre Dame vs. California – Saturday, Sept. 17 – 2:30 PM on NBC
  • Notre Dame at North Carolina – Saturday, Sept. 24 – TBD
  • Notre Dame vs. BYU (Las Vegas, NV) – Saturday, Oct. 8  – 7:30 PM on NBC
  • Notre Dame vs. Stanford – Saturday, Oct. 15 – 7:30 PM on NBC
  • Notre Dame vs. UNLV – Saturday, Oct. 22 – 2:30 PM on Peacock
  • Notre Dame at Syracuse – Saturday, Oct. 29 – TBD
  • Notre Dame vs. Clemson – Saturday, Nov. 5 – 7:30 PM  on NBC
  • Notre Dame vs. Navy (Baltimore, MD) – Saturday, Nov. 12 -12:00 PM on  ABC/ESPN
  • Notre Dame vs. Boston College – Saturday, Nov. 19 – 2:30 PM on NBC
  • Notre Dame at USC – Saturday, Nov. 26 – TBD

How to watch Notre Dame Football on Peacock:
Become a monthly or annual subscriber to Peacock Premium to watch all of our Premium sports, including Notre Dame football. Once you’re signed up, you can find LIVE coverage in the Browse section of the Peacock app and on PeacockTV.com

Please note that selection of a Premium plan will result in a charge which will recur on a monthly or annual basis, depending on your plan. You can cancel your Premium plan at any time in your Account.

What devices does Peacock support?
You can enjoy Peacock on a variety of devices. View a list of supported devices here.

Notre Dame senior defensive tackle Jacob Lacey ends season, to enter the transfer portal; secondary injury updates

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Notre Dame lost some defensive line depth during its idle week when senior tackle Jacob Lacey chose to end his Irish career, confirmed by head coach Marcus Freeman on Thursday. Lacey will enter the transfer portal after the season when the portal window opens, but to preserve a year of eligibility, he has ended his season now.

“Lacey was a great player,” Freeman said. “Lacey did a lot of great things for us, but it’s a deep position. He made a decision that ultimately he felt was best for him and we respect it. We love Jacob, and the best thing about it is he leaves with a degree in his hand.”

Thanks to the universal pandemic eligibility waiver glossing over his 11 games in 2020, Lacey has two seasons of eligibility remaining and will be immediately eligible wherever he ends up in 2023. He ends this season with five tackles, all made against Cal, including two sacks. He finishes his career with 35 tackles in 37 games with 6.5 for loss including 2.5 sacks.

To some degree, defensive line depth made Lacey’s job that day easier but also made his season prognosis more dubious.

“It’s the greatest feeling ever, just knowing we probably have 11, 12 guys that can run out there and be as good, if not better, than the guy that was just in front of them, depends who’s hot that day,” Lacey said following Notre Dame’s first win of the season. “It’s fun to see the way we all execute no matter who’s on the field.”

That just will not be Lacey moving forward.

Fifth-year Jayson Ademilola and senior Howard Cross have led that charge from the interior this season, with Cross second on the team with 23 tackles. Harvard graduate transfer Chris Smith made three tackles against Ohio State, part of his five on the season, and his name was the first one Freeman mentioned on who will play more without Lacey around.

“It’s just a position that’s extremely deep,” Freeman said. “The defensive tackle position right now is one of the deepest positions we have on our team. Chris Smith will play a little bit more. (Sophomore) Gabe Rubio will play a little bit more. (Sophomore) Jason Onye has moved from scout team to getting reps with the defense.”

But Notre Dame also does not always need two defensive tackles, instead relying on a three-man front, not to mention ends Isaiah Foskey and Rylie Mills both have the size to play on the inside on clear passing downs.

A consensus four-star prospect in the class of 2019, Lacey was Notre Dame’s first commit of the class, pledging in July of 2017. The Kentucky native chose the Irish over finalists Clemson, Louisville, Michigan, Michigan State and Tennessee.

While he played in 11 games during the pandemic season of 2020, he was fighting a balky shoulder the whole time, and he struggled a bit with coronavirus in the preseason. By playing in 11 of 12 games, Lacey camouflaged how much those items hampered him.

“I would be lying if I said I wasn’t very frustrated going through that year, battling through that injury,” Lacey said in November. “I’m glad I didn’t just stop playing. I’ve definitely grown a tremendous amount from that. It allowed me to drop weight and focus on gaining muscle, things I needed to do from the beginning, just really rehabbing, focused on things I should have done before coming to college.”

RELATED READING: Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 54 Jacob Lacey, senior defensive tackle, now lighter and a starter

SAFETY DEPTH
Freeman expects both fifth-year safety DJ Brown (hamstring) and junior safety Ramon Henderson (ankle) to be active on Saturday against No. 16 BYU in Las Vegas (7:30 ET; NBC) after being hampered two weeks ago at North Carolina.

Freshman specialist Bryce McFerson has also finally overcome a groin strain that has bothered him since the week before the opener, but walk-on Zac Yoakam has so ably handled kickoff duties, that Notre Dame is going to let McFerson focus on improving his punting. He will not usurp Harvard transfer Jon Sot there, by any means, so it distinctly sounds like McFerson may preserve a year of eligibility this season.