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.