After starting the season with three “Power Five” conference opponents, the Irish get in on some rare MACtion this weekend, welcoming Massachusetts to South Bend for their very first meeting on the gridiron. In a game that was initially scheduled to reunite (it’s hard to call this match-up a reward) ex-Irish offensive coordinator Charley Molnar with his former employer, Molnar only lasted two seasons at UMass he took the Minutemen to the FBS level, notching just two victories total before he was replaced by Mark Whipple.
In his second tour of duty in Amherst, Whipple has made incremental progress. But sitting at a disappointing 0-2, he heads to Notre Dame trying to earn his first victory of the season as a nearly 30-point underdog.
With the Yellow Jackets in the rearview mirror and a date in Death Valley just around the corner, human nature could turn this weekend into a perfect trap. But even if the Irish step in one or two of those on Saturday, Brian Kelly and the Irish staff should be able to win comfortably and give their depth chart some work.
With a beautiful weekend forecast in South Bend, let’s get to the pregame six pack. Pregame show starts at 3:00 p.m on NBCSN. Game coverage starts at 3:30 on NBC. You can also stream it all here.
As summer turns to fall, we’ll take a closer look at some of the ingredients that’ll make for a satisfying victory this weekend.
Brian Kelly needs to get Brandon Wimbush on the field. And expect him to get it done early.
When Brandon Wimbush ascended to the No. 2 quarterback job after Malik Zaire got hurt, Kelly said he was taking the redshirt off of his prized freshman. And while Georgia Tech managed to make things interesting and kept Wimbush from earning his first garbage time snaps last weekend, expect to see the blue-chip freshman this weekend. And early in the game.
“You usually try to get him in as quickly as possible. Try to get him in before the game gets in to a rhythm for the starting quarterback,” Kelly said on Thursday, before reminding everybody this isn’t a two-quarterback system.
“There’s no intention of trying to play two quarterbacks. This is just trying to get Brandon in the game and get him a little bit of playing time. Try to do it sooner rather than later. We’ll just try to pick our spot when to do that.”
On our Stay Gold podcast, Jac Collinsworth and I debated when you give Wimbush a look. I said get it done early. Jac thought give Wimbush the entire fourth quarter.
Kelly can’t say that he expects the fourth quarter to be garbage time, though he probably thinks that’s how this game should go if the Irish handle their business. But after activating Wimbush last week and likely serving him the offense through a fire hose, one thing seems certain—Kelly feels more comfortable having to play his freshman this week than last week.
“If he has to go in, I feel a whole lot better that if he has to go in we can win the game with him,” Kelly said.
In year two of his captaincy, Sheldon Day has elevated the play of the defensive linemen around him—and his leadership abilities.
Sheldon Day may have had a ‘C’ on his jersey last season. But it’s taken until his senior year to grow into the job. For anybody who watched Tuesday night’s Showtime episode of “A Season with Notre Dame,” Day’s growing relationship with freshman Jerry Tillery is an early contender for “sitcom we want Fighting Irish Media to develop.”
Day has been able to show Tillery and sophomore Daniel Cage the ropes, while also demanding impressive play out of that duo. And if you ask Kelly what impresses him the most about Day as a senior, that’s it.
“I couldn’t be more proud of (Day) in the way that he’s matured and taken hold of his captainship in a manner that I didn’t know that he could,” Kelly said. “He’s able to bring all those personalities together, and he’s now not afraid to hold others accountable which is a huge step in being a great leader. His play has been really good, but what I’ve been most pleased with is the way that he’s practiced. He’s set a standard for practice and I couldn’t be more proud of him.”
Both Day and Isaac Rochell have had a pretty lofty work volume through three games. While the Irish’s dominant performance against Texas kept their snap count down, Day played 126 snaps against Virginia and Georgia Tech while Rochell racked up 133. Those numbers feel unsustainable.
So on Saturday, look to see the Irish finally get to flex some of their depth along the defensive line, with Jonathan Bonner, Pete Mokwuah and Jacob Matuska getting some opportunities on the inside while Andrew Trumbetti will return to the field after spending the Georgia Tech game on the sideline.
With UMass passing early and often, it’s a good opportunity for the Irish defensive front to make some noise and gain some experience. And if Day has any say in things, his young teammates will produce.
After letting loose his frustration on Twitter late Wednesday night, one young defensive lineman who’s not going to play is Jay Hayes. (And that may have always been part of the plan.)
Social Media. It giveth, and it taketh away. And it appears to have taken away Jay Hayes’ opportunity to travel to the team hotel and dress with the team on Saturday. The sophomore defensive tackle may be one of the more lively Twitter follows on the team, with his free-wheeling personality coming out 140 characters at a time. But on Wednesday night, Hayes’ frustrations over playing time seemed to bubble over, and he fired off a few tweets that all but said as much.
Hayes deleted the tweets, but that didn’t make them disappear. And on Thursday Kelly acknowledged the situation, calling it a life lesson and one that Hayes will learn from.
“There has to be responsibility as it relates to social media. And you have to think before you hit send,” Kelly said. “What you have to do is come knock on my door instead of hitting the send button. These are good lessons to be learned. If he has a job at Google and he talks about his boss that way, he’s probably not going to have a job the next day.”
Kelly made it clear he wasn’t banning Hayes from social media or taking away Twitter from his players, as some coaches at the college level have done this season. Kelly called it a “life lesson.”
Hayes’ lack of playing time is also likely part of a plan to save a year of eligibility. After taking off his redshirt late last season, both Hayes and defensive end Grant Blankenship haven’t played this season. And if the defensive line stays healthy, that’s likely how Kelly plans on keeping things, preserving a fifth year for both players and fortifying the defensive front for an extra season.
“We have great faith in Jay. He’s going to play here. He’s still in the developmental stage,” Kelly said. We like Jay. Just like we like Blankenship. Just like we like Trumbetti, who didn’t play last week. These are guys chomping at the bit. They want to play.
“But we’ve got good players, and that’s a good problem to have. We’re okay with Jay Hayes. Jay’s going to be fine. But it’s a good life lesson.”
Colorado ran for 390 yards against UMass. With C.J. Prosise already sitting at No. 5 in the country with 451 rushing yards, Prosise could make it two-thirds of the way to 1,000 yards on the season with another day like last week.
But while the Irish will likely get the running game revved up, don’t expect to see another 20-carry day for Prosise. I think you’ll see the senior max out around 12 to 15 touches, and then hand over the reins to Josh Adams and Dexter Williams. Both freshmen need to get comfortable in the offense, and Saturday afternoon is a perfect time to do it.
Quarterback DeShone Kizer talked about the importance of setting up the running game, and how it might not even matter who’s running the football if the offensive line plays the way they’ve been playing.
“One good thing about this offense is we are starting to create an identity. Our offensive line is so powerful up front and our running backs are so good, there’s not much you can do to stop our run game,” Kizer said.
Entering week four, a freshman will have to do something impressive to take the redshirt off.
Max Redfield is back in the starting lineup, broken thumb a week better after watching the Irish beat up Georgia Tech’s triple-option. And while the loss of Drue Tranquill had Kelly and the Irish’s defensive staff trying to decide what to do with the dwindling safety depth chart, it appears Notre Dame will try to get by without playing freshman Mykelti Williams.
Williams was elevated from the scout team this week in practice, but Nicky Baratti will be the next safety in if that’s needed. Kelly talked a little bit about the decision, acknowledging that it isn’t enough to take a redshirt off just for special teams contributions.
“We’re not going to play any freshman on special teams if they can’t impact offense or defense,” Kelly said. “If they haven’t played up until this point, they’re not going to play on special teams unless they can impact offense or defense.
“Once we feel they’re capable of impacting that side of the ball, then we’ll engage them in special teams.”
At this point, it’ll be interesting to see how Kelly handles the freshmen who have seen limited reps. Among them, Equanimeous St. Brown and Nicco Fertitta. St. Kelly could decide to keep both of them off the field for the remainder of the season, preserving a season of eligibility.
Freshman cornerback Nick Coleman has been dynamic on special teams, so he could be a candidate to slide into Tranquill’s dime back role, or don’t be surprised if Coleman challenges Devin Butler and Nick Watkins for the outside cornerback job in nickel.
At this time of year, roster management is critical. And after suffering three-straight weeks of bad luck early this season, the Irish deserve a chance to preserve some seasons.
After getting picked apart against Virginia, Notre Dame’s secondary gets a shot at redemption (before an even bigger game next weekend).
Nobody will be quick to forget the pass defense against Virginia. The Irish made quarterback Matt Johns look like Johnny Unitas, with Johns scrambling and throwing the Cavaliers back into the football game in the second half, a surprise against a cover group that should’ve been one of the strengths of the team.
Kelly spoke briefly about the defensive breakdowns in the immediate aftermath of the closer Irish victory, though moved quickly on to game-planning for the Yellow Jackets. But a week later we’ll get to see the Irish secondary made any improvements as they get a chance to take on a prolific passing offense.
UMass quarterback Blake Frohnapfel is one of the country’s most underrated passers. The 6-foot-6 graduate transfer is in his second season piloting Whipple’s offense and he’s a returning All-MAC quarterback.
With a challenge ahead, Kelly is hopeful that his secondary will play better this time around.
“We’ll get tested. I’m not ready to say that we’ve corrected everything. We’re going to have to go out and play,” Kelly said. “I have confidence that they’re going to play much better than they did against Virginia, but they’re going to have to go out and do it now.”
Frohnapfel pairs with senior Tajae Sharpe, who Kelly paid a large compliment to earlier in the week when he said he might be one of the best receivers that the Irish see all year. Sharpe had 85 catches for 1,281 yards last season and has started this year with two 11 catch efforts for nearly 300 receiving yards. Sharpe will be a good challenge for KeiVarae Russell and Cole Luke a week before they travel to play against Clemson’s skill talent.