SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame has seen what can happen when it lets its guard down after a critical victory. The last time it happened, a Pitt team quarterbacked by Tino Sunseri was a missed field goal (and a missed penalty by the referees) from derailing 2012's run to the BCS Championship.
UMass doesn’t compare to that average-at-best 2012 Pitt team that came so close to beating Notre Dame three years ago, though. The Minutemen are 5-33 since joining the FBS level in 2012, and 25 FCS teams rank higher than them in Jeff Sagarin’s ratings. This is an opponent Notre Dame should handle with ease (the line is the Irish by 29 points), providing coach Brian Kelly an opportunity to rest his starters with an eye trained to Oct. 3’s pivotal playoff showdown with Clemson in South Carolina.
But the rhetoric emanating from the Guglielmino Athletics Complex this week is that Notre Dame isn’t overlooking a UMass team Kelly said is “one of the best teams in the MAC.” Nevermind that UMass is leaving the security of the MAC to become an independent after this season, a clear sign its tenure at college football’s top level has been a disastrous one.
“There are no easy games on our schedule,” safety and captain Matthias Farley said. "I’m sure every team that we play circles us because everybody wants to beat us, and we can't listen to any — I mean, I didn’t know that we are four touchdown (favorites), it doesn't matter. We have to execute. It doesn't matter who we play because we are going to get their best shot, so we have to be to be prepared for that week-in and week-out.”
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UMass’ best shot, for what its worth, nearly led to a win over a strong group of five Temple side last week. It took a walk-off field goal for Matt Rhule’s Owls — a team that legitimately could contend for a New Year’s Six bowl — to win by two and avoid a crippling loss at home. That game may be the best thing to happen to Notre Dame, since it gives Kelly and his captains ammo in their battle to take UMass seriously.
“Any team can beat any team on any given day,” linebacker and captain Joe Schmidt said. “I think there have been enough examples of that throughout the years. And the thing is, Massachusetts is a very good football team and they do a lot of things that are very, very challenging.”
Minutemen receiver Tajae Sharp presents the biggest challenge on either side of the ball for Notre Dame, with the senior racking up 22 receptions for 294 yards against Colorado (a 48-14 loss for UMass in Boulder) and Temple. Notre Dame’s secondary will have to better than it was against Virginia, when it made the usually questionable Matt Johns-Canaan Severin tandem look like Steve Young and Jerry Rice.
UMass switches between 3-4 and 4-3 fronts and returns nine starters on defense, including its entire secondary. But that’s not necessarily a good thing when the guys who are coming back have been a big reason why the Minutemen have a point differential of -25.7 since 2012.
“These are the games that concern me the most where everybody else thinks that they are going to be easy games,” Kelly said. “This is going to be a difficult game. UMass will play very well.”
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But if Notre Dame is serious about its College Football Playoff aspirations, it won’t mess around with UMass. And even if UMass collectively plays its best game as an FBS program, Notre Dame’s upper-echelon talent and depth should be more than enough to pave the way for a comfortable victory.
Elite teams don’t let programs like UMass hang with them. This won’t be a game that’ll make or break Notre Dame’s playoff bid, but the optics of anything but a blowout won’t be favorable.
Notre Dame players, though, are avoiding that line of thinking.
“I'm not really listening to that kind of noise,” Schmidt said. “I’m really looking forward to playing this team and getting out there, and there's a lot of things that are going to be very challenging on Saturday.”