AMHERST — It’s not as though the Minutemen haven’t spent 60 minutes inside an imposing edifice before.
The University of Massachusetts football team has played Penn State before nearly 100,000 in not-so-Happy Valley. It visited The Big House in Michigan, and was a welcome guest at Wisconsin’s traditional five-quarter kegger at Camp Randall Stadium. A fortnight ago, UMass spent a day in Colorado, where the Buffaloes roam at altitude.
“They’ve been on a plane,” observed coach Mark Whipple. “They’ve been around a little bit.”
But until now, the Minutemen haven’t made the pigskin pilgrimage to South Bend, Ind., where Rockne and the Four Horsemen live in bronze, where Touchdown Jesus and the Irish Guard and the Victory March and the leprechaun mascot all are part of the lore.
“We’ve been to some great venues before, but I’m sure that this will rank right up at the top,” said receiver Tajae Sharpe, whose winless team takes on unbeaten and sixth-ranked Notre Dame Saturday afternoon before 80,000 partisans who’ll shake down the thunder from the sky. “I’ve heard nothing but great things.”
The UMass hockey team played out there last winter, when their Hockey East playoff series included a five-overtime, 151-plus-minute game that was nearly long enough for the Minutemen to establish Indiana voting residency. So Whipple wants to approach the school’s football debut there as just another road trip, even if the $1 million payday the school will receive reflects the fact that this is more than just another away game.
“We’ll just do our regular thing,” said Whipple, whose squad is flying to South Bend Friday morning and will stay an hour’s drive from campus. “We’ll go look at the place and go practice at a high school. At least they can see where they’re going to dress and walk around the field and then go do our thing.”
The Golden Dome is the latest stop on what has been at times a jarring FBS apprenticeship for the Minutemen, who have won only five of their last 41 games as they continue their transition to bowl-level football.
“Playing Notre Dame, that’s the top of the top,” said quarterback Blake Frohnapfel. “They’re No. 6 in the country. Playing Temple last week, they were a borderline Top 25 team and we went toe-to-toe with them for 12 rounds.
“It’s kind of a measuring stick for yourself in seeing if we can compete with these teams.”
More often than not, especially on the road, that stick has been used as a shillelagh against the Minutemen. They were beaten, 63-13 at Michigan in 2012, 45-0 at Wisconsin and 37-7 at Kansas State in 2013, and 48-7 at Penn State last year. This year, they absorbed a 48-14 trampling at Colorado.
If the form chart holds, there will be more of the same from the Fighting Irish, who are four-touchdown favorites after having dispatched Texas, Virginia, and Georgia Tech. That’s what worries coach Brian Kelly, whose varsity will tumble out of the Top 10 if it stubs its toe against a bunch from the Berkshires.
“These are the games that concern me the most,” he said. “Where everybody else thinks they are going to be easy games. This is going to be a difficult game. UMass will play very well.”
UMass played well last week against Temple, coming from two touchdowns behind to take the lead with 1:20 to play before losing on a blocked PAT return and a field goal with 12 seconds left.
“They had Temple beat,” observed Kelly. “Temple is a team that’s already beaten Cincinnati and Penn State. So that’s a quality football team.”
Kelly called UMass “a nightmare in terms of what we’re going to have to get ready for.”
The Minutemen have no illusions about what they’ll be up against.
“We’ve got smart guys,” said Whipple. “They look at the tape. They know these guys are good. They see what they did against Georgia Tech.”
The Irish, who lost last year’s starting quarterback (Everett Golson) to Florida State and this year’s (Malik Zaire) to a broken ankle against Virginia, simply plugged in 19-year-old DeShone Kizer against the Yellow Jackets and watched him complete 21 of 30 passes for 242 yards. Meanwhile, running back C.J. Prosise, a former third-stringer, rumbled for 198 yards and three touchdowns, including a 91-yarder, the longest in Notre Dame Stadium history.
“They recruit pretty good and they’ve got a lot of guys,” observed Whipple. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a 91-yard run from a backup.”
Notre Dame is a place where players compete against ghosts who handed down their gilded helmets. For a visitor, the trick to winning there is not to play against the past, not to be blinded by the lore.
“You treat it like they’re just another team,” said Frohnapfel, who grew up an Irish fan in Virginia because his father was one. “Don’t try to overhype it or anything.
“Obviously, when you look back, you’ll think, ‘Hey, we played at Notre Dame. It was pretty cool.’ ”
This week the Minutemen simply want to beat somebody, and the Irish happen to be next on the schedule.
“At the end of the day, it’s a football game,” said Sharpe. “We’re going to prepare the same and treat it like just another Saturday, no matter who we’re lined up against. It doesn’t matter if it’s Notre Dame or the Seattle Seahawks. We’ll go out there with the mind-set to get a W.”