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One Foot Down Game Day Countdown: Notre Dame vs. UMass

Charley Molnar won't be there but Notre Dame still has to play UMass for the first time ever on Saturday.

Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Umass helmet

UMass (+28.5) at Notre Dame

Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana

Kickoff: 3:30 PM ET

Date: Saturday, September 26, 2015

Television: NBC

Series: First Meeting

This is the One Foot Down preview for this weekend's game against the Massachusetts Minutemen.

5 Factoids

It's Pronounced FROH-nap-ul

A 2011 recruit for Marshall, current UMass quarterback Blake Frohnapfel took a redshirt year as a freshman than backed up Rakeem Cato for 2 seasons. After graduating early he bolted to Amherst where he was immediately eligible last season and exploded for 3,345 yards with 23 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in just 10 games. Get ready to hear his name a lot--he's thrown the ball on average 44 times per game with the Minutemen. Frohnapfel is currently 4th among all quarterbacks this season in attempts per game.

Lots of Points Surrendered

Following a 2-year transitional period the Minutemen became bowl eligible at the FBS level beginning in 2013. Over the last 3+ seasons they've lined up against 11 teams from Power 5 conferences and lost every game. Although they scored a combined 69 points against Vanderbilt and Colorado last year offense (12.4 PPG) has been an issue against the big clubs. The only thing worse is the 42.1 PPG allowed in those 11 losses.

Whip(ple) It Good

UMass head coach Mark Whipple is in his second stint with the Minutemen and is no green up-and-comer. He took over this job in 2003 (winning a I-AA National Championship) and spent 6 seasons in Amherst winning 65.3% of his games. He then bounced around the NFL for a while--with a 2-year stint at Da U thrown in--before returning to UMass in 2014 following the Molnarpocalypse.

Easiest Game of the Kelly Era?

I mentioned this in my summer preview of UMass that if the Minutemen were around their rankings from last year this might be the "easiest" game of the Brian Kelly era. Last season they finished 120th in F/+ and heading into this weekend they've only moved up to 111th. Using this measure only the 2013 Air Force game (45-10 Irish win) was an easier matchup for Notre Dame.

Helmet Helper

Two off-seasons ago we set out to improve the helmets for several programs across the country. One of those we helped was UMass. It's unclear whether they'll be sporting these lids this weekend.

umass 1

4 Players to Watch

WR Tajae Sharpe

The senior wideout from Piscataway became both UMass' all-time career receptions leader and single game catch leader last week versus Temple. He's got great height (6-3) on a lean body at 188 pounds. Through 2 games he's already amassed 22 receptions for 294 yards but has yet to score a touchdown.

TE Rodney Mills

A jack-of-all-trades player the senior lines up all over the place for the Minutemen. Mills had a nice 2014 with 489 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns and is already over 100 yards this season through 2 games. Watch for him at fullback, tight end, or receiver.

LB Jovan Santos-Knox

A tacking machine who finished 5th nationally last year with 143 stops. Santos-Knox roams the middle of the defense and is one of the UMass playmakers on defense. So far this year he's totaled 17 tackles, 3 TFL, and 1 sack.

S Khary Bailey-Smith

Currently 4th in the MAC in tackles per game, Bailey-Smith started the last 4 games of 2014 and has begun 2015 as a starting safety. His 18 solo tackles in 2 games is pretty impressive--that's more than anyone on Notre Dame in the Irish's 3 games played.

3 Concerns

Let Down Sandwich

The Irish are coming off an emotional victory over Georgia Tech and have the Clemson Tigers carefully planning their jog down the hill for a night game in Death Valley next weekend.

Poor Pass Defense

It'll be interesting to see how the defense handles the transition from a triple option attack to the most pass-happy offense the Irish will face all season. Will it be an opportunity for the secondary to gain some confidence or will it be one of those annoying games where a few too many third downs are converted by an experienced quarterback?

A Lack of Playing Time by Young Players

Josh Adams, Dexter Williams, Nyles Morgan, Brandon Wimbush, Nick Coleman, Te'von Coney, and others should be able to get significant reps in this game. If they don't because the score is too close for comfort it's a negative for program growth and experienced player health.

2 Sides of the Line

UMass has welcomed back a veteran line with plenty of experience. On the left side redshirt junior tackle Tyrell Smith (6-6, 323) and junior guard Fabian Hoeller (6-3, 298) started every game last year and remain at their positions. Senior center Matt Sparks (6-4, 292) missed a few games last year but is back in the middle.

Redshirt junior Michael Boland (6-6, 323) started the last 6 games last year and got the nod at right guard over 5th-year senior Josh Bruns (6-5, 283) who started the first half of 2014. At right tackle, UMass welcomes back 2014 starter in redshirt sophomore Elijah Wilkinson (6-5, 328) to give the Minutemen 3 very large linemen.

In Massachusetts' 3-4 double tackle look they've moved outside linebacker 5th-year senior Trey Seals (6-3, 233) to end and he'll be making his 16th career start this weekend. At the nose senior Robert Kitching (6-1, 296) made a few starts last year and is holding down the position this year. At the other tackle position junior Peter Angeh (6-1, 263) is returning as a starter from last year. Also providing depth and playing a lot at tackle is redshirt sophomore Sha-Ki Holines (6-3, 264) who made 9 starts last year.

As you'd expect from this type of front they aren't very disruptive with no sacks and just 3.5 TFL through 2 games. The pass rushing linebacker for UMass is senior Kassan Messiah (6-4, 240) who is also without  a sack or TFL this year.

1 Prediction

UMass was supposed to be improved this year with 19 starters back and one of the MAC's best quarterbacks. Then they opened the season and got obliterated by Colorado (90th in F/+) in Boulder giving up 31 first half points and surrendering 390 yards on the ground by the final whistle.

Was it the mile-high air and western road trip that did the young FBS program in? Returning home last week they went toe-to-toe with Temple (47th in F/+) losing with a few seconds left on a field goal attempt from 32-yards. That tough loss only moved them up a few spots in the F/+ rankings to 111th.

Through 2 games, it doesn't appear there's been much improvement for the Minutemen. The defense is still extremely shaky and the offense could not run the ball against Temple (67 yards) and picked up 92 of their 147 rushing yards against Colorado in the 2nd half after trailing by at least 3 touchdowns.

Notre Dame Advanced Stats Profile

ND 5 Factors (UMass)

UMass Advanced Stats Profile

UMass 5 Factors

No, this team is pretty much going to ride and die on Blake Frohnapfel's arm. Last week, despite throwing 26 incompletions, UMass had just enough explosiveness through the air to compete with Temple.

Against the Owls, Frohnapfel tossed 13 passes of 10+ yards, 9 passes of 16+ yards, and connected on throws of 31, 34, and 45 yards.

We'll probably only see token support of the run game by UMass--something like 25 rushing yards wouldn't shock me, especially in non-garbage minutes. Against their last six Power 5 opponents the Minutemen have averaged 2.56 yards per carry and are coming off a 1.80 average last week against a pretty stingy Temple defense.

My primary predictors for success are twofold: How long will the Irish keep their starting units in the game and will Frohnapfel have a bad day or will a constant barrage of passes lead to an annoying amount of first downs and a closer-than-you-think score?

I think the Irish will keep things pretty simple on offense, run the ball a lot, and get Josh Adams involved early. This might lead to some frustration early on but eventually things will open up and a couple big plays will crack the game open.

Notre Dame 40

UMass 17