UMass head coach Mark Whipple knows a Minutemen victory over Notre Dame on Saturday — oddsmakers list the No. 6 Irish as 27.5-point favorites, as of Monday afternoon — would be a big win for his program.
Still, his squad has a lot of football left ahead of them this year. And after a 3-9 record in 2014, followed by an 0-2 start this season (including a brutal 25-23 loss to Temple), Whipple is more focused on getting his program into the other side of the win column than just notching a singular statement victory.
"It'd mean we're 1-2 [if they beat Notre Dame], I guess that's all I could say," Whipple said. "I'm kind of in a bunker mode right now, trying to find a way to make a first down against Notre Dame. We're getting our guys prepared, we showed them some things last night to introduce them to Notre Dame, trying to get a plan on both sides of the ball.
"They don't give trophies or national championships, you don't get any rings for this game. It's a huge game, and I think we'll be excited, but I thought we'd be excited for Penn State last year and we weren't. We've got to get our guys motivated and try to get the Temple game out. But it'd certainly be a big win for us."
UMass struggled picking up first downs on the ground against the Owls in their Sept. 19 contest, gaining only two on the day after rushing 25 times for only 45 yards (1.8 per attempt). That has Whipple's staff pulling out all the stops to find a go-to runner in the backfield. Eight different players picked up a carry in their season opener against Colorado, with junior Shadrach Abrokwah turning in a team-high nine attempts. Then against Temple, Abrokwah didn't even see the field while true freshman Sekai Lindsay (team-high 12 carries for 35 yards) was given a shot as the top back.
"He [Abrokwah] was the next guy up," Whipple said. "We wanted to see what those young guys could do, and obviously we didn't run the ball very well. I felt like we had to throw it to try and have a chance, a little bit more than I would like to. But he's doing good, he's fine, he's in the bullpen right now. We're putting a plan together — last night and this morning — on what we want to do.
"We're trying to find ways to make first downs, and certainly this week I would think will probably be a lot more difficult than last week when we struggled. We've just got to get away from the negative plays, which hurt us, like a bad snap. Get into some third-and-manageable situations. Running the ball on first down, we had a couple good runs and penalties bring them back. So we just need some more consistency in the run game."
Whipple's veteran players are experienced in facing Power Five conference teams on the road, after playing at Wisconsin and Kansas State in 2013, and at Penn State in 2014. So while the magic and history of Notre Dame separates itself from many in college football, Whipple doesn't plan to adjust UMass's gameday schedule much, or turn this road contest into a field trip for his team.
"I just tell them we're not going to a fair, we're going to play some football," Whipple said. "We'll see it Friday. Maybe they'll be overwhelmed, but they've played at some places. They've played at Penn State and at Wisconsin. I'm not saying those places are Notre Dame, but I don't know. I haven't been there, I haven't coached there, so I don't know. I'm hoping it'll get them excited, but we're really focused on trying to execute the game plan and not trying to hand them anything. We can't give them any breaks.
"We'll just do our regular thing. We'll go look at the place, then go practice at a high school. At least see where they're going to dress, walk around the field a little and then do our thing. We'll go to our hotel, we're about an hour away, so get them used to the drive … just our usual routine, nothing really different."
Whipple on Notre Dame's talent, including receivers and running back: "I see that and about 18 other guys that are really good players. They are really talented. I was being honest, I thought Temple was the best team we've played since I've been back at UMass, and certainly Notre Dame is a level up from them. They're talented across the board. Great wide receivers, [Will] Fuller is tremendously explosive. [C.J.] Prosise is a big, physical guy that had a 91-yard against Tech. Showed a lot of poise, just getting better with every rep he gets."
"On defense, Jaylon Smith is a top-10 pick in the NFL. He can rush the passer, he can drop and play coverage. The guys in the secondary are really good. They don't have any weaknesses. We have to be on point, can't give them anything easy, and find a way to make some first downs and get some stops. But they're really talented, and Coach [Brian] Kelly has always done a great job no matter where he's been. Their staff, they have a plan and they're certainly executing at a high level right now."
Whipple on if he has a relationship with Irish head coach Brian Kelly: "I've just seen him at some things. When I was at Miami the last game there, we played Notre Dame in a bowl  when everyone was out, and they did a great job. But I've known his past. He went to St. John's Prep and is a Massachusetts guy, he went to Assumption. When we were at lower levels, I was at New Haven and he was at Grand Valley. I've always followed him and I have tremendous respect for him and what he's done. He motivates guys and gets them to play and is really bright offensively, all the way scheme wise. He's done a great job wherever he's been and I don't expect that to be any different this Saturday."