SOUTH BEND, Ind. — While politicking for his program’s position in the College Football Playoff standings last year, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly derided his competitors for playing “glorified byes” against FCS teams. Notre Dame has never played an FCS/Division II opponent, of course, which does carry with it some level of nobility.
But the advantage of playing an FCS team comes in resting starters in the second half of a blowout win. For an SEC team playing a brutal conference schedule, even giving its players 15 minutes off on Saturdays can have a positive impact.
In beating UMass 62-27 Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium, the Irish realized the benefit of playing one of the worst programs at the FBS level. Freshman quarterback Brandon Wimbush tagged in for DeShone Kizer with eight minutes left in the third quarter, and by the start of the final period both the second-team offense and defense were in the game.
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With a critical game for Notre Dame's playoff chances looming at Clemson next week, getting its starters out of harm's way for the fourth quarter was as big a win as the final scoreline.
“One quarter can beat you up a lot,” cornerback Cole Luke, who picked off a pass late in the third quarter, said. “It’s definitely good for us, the starters get out, the young guys get in, get some playing time, get some reps, some experience.
“… Rest is one of the most important things, especially going in to playing a great team.”
Notre Dame didn’t have anyone suffer a season-ending injury on Saturday, which counts as a positive for a team beset by a comical number of misfortunes this year. Tight end Tyler Luatua missed the game with a concussion but is expected to be cleared to play soon, while wide receiver Corey Robinson sprained his knee — an injury Kelly is optimistic isn’t serious — in pregame warmups.
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One of the biggest advantages to playing UMass came with giving running back C.J. Prosise some rest. Kelly admitted the redshirt junior was hitting his red line for carries since Tarean Folston tore his ACL against Texas, rushing 20, 17 and 22 times in Notre Dame’s first three games. Against UMass, Prosise received 15 handoffs (and still gained 149 yards with two touchdowns), while freshmen Josh Adams and Dexter Williams combined for 181 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries.
“I’ve got a lot of carries the last couple games,” Prosise said. “It was good to get a little rest today. … I feel like it’s pretty important. It’s such a big game next week and trying to get my body right, not taking any extra hits today.”
Wimbush flashed a rocket arm and blazing speed in relief of Kizer, scything 58 yards on a run for his first career touchdown and coming a reviewed catch and illegal man downfield penalty away from completing big-chunk passes to Will Fuller and Equanimeous St. Brown, respectively.
Defensively, a first-team group that struggled in the first half locked down in the third quarter and got its backups in to minimize the bumps and bruises of a full game.
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“I’m a gamer and a competitor, I would love to play the entire game of course,” cornerback KeiVarae Russell said. But it is valuable, especially for the experience of younger guys and getting that game experience. … But it definitely was good for us to take an entire quarter off to allow our bodies to recover. That was good.”
Playing UMass won’t give Notre Dame’s strength of schedule a boost, and despite Kelly’s insistence the Minutemen are one of the best teams in the MAC — Bowling Green, Toledo, Northern Illinois and Western Michigan will dispute that claim — this is a team that’ll be lucky to finish the season with more than three wins.
But there’s no shame in blowing out a lesser opponent. Especially if it helps Notre Dame next week against Clemson.