SOUTH BEND, Ind. — For a few nervy hours, Notre Dame looked like it could be in for a major letdown against a downtrodden program Saturday.
But a few key plays late in the first half and a pointed halftime message pushed Notre Dame to score 41 unanswered points en route to blowing out UMass, 62-27, at Notre Dame Stadium to tee up a pivotal playoff showdown against Clemson next week at Death Valley. The 62 points were the most scored by Notre Dame since a 62-0 win over Rutgers in 1996.
Midway through the second quarter, Notre Dame led 21-20 against a team that only has five wins in 39 games since becoming an FBS program in 2012. Minutemen running back Marquis Young ripped off an 83-yard touchdown run to end the first quarter, and UMass entered halftime averaging 7.3 yards per play. Notre Dame struggled to defend a fast-paced offense that frequently changed looks, which gave the Irish defense fits.
“We definitely needed to re-focus on defense and make sure that we did our job on every play,” defensive tackle and senior captain Sheldon Day said.
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Notre Dame’s defense hit the reset button in the second half, finally looking like the far more skilled and athletic side against a entirely overmatched UMass team. The Minutemen only scored a garbage-time touchdown late in the fourth quarter, while Cole Luke registered Notre Dame’s first interception of the season.
“We have a standard that’s set for ourselves, every player and defense as a whole, the team as a whole,” linebacker James Onwualu said. “We have a standard that we want to meet and we didn’t necessarily do that in the first half. Coming out in the second half, we got that accomplished.”
It was all an offense that was firing on all cylinders — both with its first and second-team units in there — to pull away for a comfortable five-touchdown victory.
“They're better than we are,” UMass coach Mark Whipple said. “We'll take the money and run.”
Eight Notre Dame players accounted for the team’s nine touchdowns: Quarterback DeShone Kizer threw and ran for a score, freshman quarterback Brandon Wimbush ripped off a 58-yard touchdown run in his college debut, running backs C.J. Prosise (two TD’s), Josh Adams and Dexter Williams all dashed into the end zone and receivers Will Fuller and Chris Brown scored, too.
Prosise (15 carries, 149 yards) powered an Irish ground game that racked up 457 yards, the most for Notre Dame since Sept. 26, 1992 against Purdue. The freshman duo of Adams (13 carries, 133 yards) and Williams (seven carries, 48 yards) helped limit Prosise’s carries with an eye trained toward Oct. 3 at Clemson.
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“We just couldn't handle their offensive line,” Whipple said. “Their offensive line just manhandled us.”
This was a game Notre Dame had no business allowing to be close. A team with legitimate playoff aspirations doesn’t let UMass hang around, no matter how complimentary coach Brian Kelly was of the Minutemen after the game (“I think they've got a great chance of winning the MAC,” Kelly said). The optics of a close game against a team that’s now 5-34 at the FBS level wouldn’t have been good.
So for Notre Dame, it was mission accomplished on Saturday. The Irish exited the game without any significant injuries — left tackle Ronnie Stanley, who’s dealt with some patella tendonitis, went down in the second quarter but returned, while wide receiver Corey Robinson (sprained knee in warmups) and tight end Tyler Luatua (concussion) were scratched, but aren’t expected to be out for long.
Now, it’s on to Clemson for a game that could make or break Notre Dame’s nascent playoff bid.
“I know these guys are going to be excited for the Irish to come into town,” cornerback KeiVarae Russell said, “and trust me, we’re excited to go.”