After playing one of the more troubling and difficult offenses, Notre Dame is going to have to transition to playing against a pro-style offense in their game against UMass. There isn’t anything that makes this offense stand out from what most teams run across the country, but that’s not to say that it’s going to be predictable and easy to stop. UMass is a team on the rise despite the 0-2 start this season, but if Notre Dame’s defense can adjust their mentality quickly enough from last week’s game to Saturday, there’s no doubt the Irish walk away 4-0 heading into Clemson.
In Brian Kelly’s pre-game interview, he made it sound like this game was going to be one of the toughest games Notre Dame will be faced with, but I don’t really buy into the rhetoric. This will be the first time that UMass visits Notre Dame, and since it rose to the FBS, it hasn’t won a game against a Power Five opponent.
The most notable aspect about this offensive line in comparison to the past three Notre Dame has played is that they’re all upperclassmen. They all also have significant playing experience together. Almost all of them played in all 12 games last season for the Minute Men, which is a serious advantage in terms of offensive chemistry. However, that chemistry that matches up well against other MAC opponents won’t work well against Notre Dame’s much more talented defensive front seven.
Center Matt Sparks is the offensive line’s anchor, and he’s received national recognition for his play last season. He was placed on the Rimington Trophy and Outland Trophy preseason watch lists, which are both prestigious awards handed out to the best center and best interior lineman, respectively. Left tackle Tyrell Smith started all 12 games last season, and he was placed on Phil Steele’s preseason All-MAC fourth-team offensive line. That’s not really saying much, but among the the MAC offensive linemen, he’s one of the better tackles in the conference.
So far this season, the offensive line hasn’t produced much for UMass giving up four sacks in two games and providing just 192 yards rushing. The team relies heavily on the arm of quarterback Blake Frohnapfel, which explains the lack of rushing, but there needs to be a balance if they expect to beat Notre Dame on the road.
As mentioned above, this group is essentially non-existent. Maybe it’s because head coach Mark Whipple thought it would be best to attack Colorado and Temple with an air raid offensive scheme, but I’m going to guess that UMass’s running backs just don’t play well. No one on the team has more than a 100 yards rushing through both their games, and as team, they’re rushing for just 3.6 yards carry.
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Last week, C.J Prosise ran for more yards than UMass has rushed for all season. It’s not a good look for UMass because it makes them look like a one-dimensional football team. If they are going to rely simply on the arm of Frohnapfel to beat Notre Dame, UMass should just stay in Massachusetts and not waste their time. On the off chance that UMass starts to look like they have a legitimate rushing attack on Saturday, look for number 22, Shadrach Abrokwah. He was the leading rusher for the Minute Men last season accumulating 573 yards along with scoring seven touchdowns. If anyone is going to spark a rushing threat, it’s going to be him.
After Saturday, you’ll all probably remember one name from UMass’s offense, and that’s Tajae Sharpe. Without Sharpe, UMass has no offense. Plain and simple. Remember when Victor Cruz played for the Minute Men back in 2008-2009? Well that’s how dominant Sharpe is, and I would say he is better than Cruz was playing for UMass. Sharpe had 85 receptions for 1,281 and seven touchdowns last season, which were all team highs. He was a mid-season addition for the Biletnikoff award last season, and this season, he was on the preseason watchlist for the award.
There’s no doubt Sharpe is going to be the best receiver Notre Dame has faced all year. He picked up right where he left off last season. He has already hauled in 22 catches for 294 yards averaging over 13 yards a catch, and that’s just through two games. If the Irish can shut down Sharpe, the Minute Men’s passing attack is going to struggle, and it will force them to run the ball, which they can’t do well anyway. But if Sharpe dominates, there’s a chance UMass can make this game interesting.
Blake Frohnapfel has been under the radar playing for UMass, but he’s actually one of the better quarterbacks in the country. He started his collegiate career at Marshall backing up Rakeem Cato, who plays in the Canadian Football League, and transferred to UMass in 2014. In his first year as a starting quarterback, Frohnapfel through for 3,345 yards and 23 touchdowns. He completed just 55% of his passes, but the lack of talent surrounding him probably factored into why his completion percentage was so low.
So far this season, he hasn’t improved his completion rate, converting 55% of his attempts, and he’s thrown for 618 yards and four touchdown passes in his first two games. He was placed on the Davey O’Brien preseason watchlist, which is given to the nation’s top quarterback, so it’s evident that Frohnapfel has talent, but my concern is that coach Whipple puts way too much pressure on him to perform.
UMass doesn’t have a rushing attack that can compliment the passing game, and through two games, Frohnapfel has thrown more pass attempts than Malik Zaire and Deshone Kizer combined in three games. The talent is there at quarterback if UMass wants to become a legitimate threat in the MAC, but if Frohnapfel is their only option on offense, it won’t be difficult for opposing defensive coordinators to game-plan against the Minute Men.