UMass' Frohnapfel, Sharpe form dangerous duo
Brian Kelly knows a game-wrecker when he sees one.
And the ones he encounters on Saturday may fit a familiar mold.
A few weeks ago, Virginia quarterback Matt Johns and wide receiver Canaan Severin did most of the wrecking. The 6-foot-5, 210-pound quarterback completed 68.4 percent of his passes, gouging the Irish secondary for 289 yards and two touchdowns. Many of those targets went to Severin — a physical 6-2, 205-pound senior receiver — who hauled in 11 catches for 153 yards, routinely outmuscling smaller Notre Dame defensive backs for position.
In all, the underdog Cavaliers finished a Will Fuller miracle catch shy of sinking Notre Dame’s playoff hopes in one fell, devastating swoop.
Now, consider the parallels.
The team Notre Dame hosts on Saturday, Massachusetts, features another tall, strong, accurate passer in 6-6, 238-pound graduate student Blake Frohnapfel. And his favorite target is another lanky, physical senior wide receiver — 6-3, 188-pound Tajae Sharpe.
“We’ve been watching the tape a lot,” Sharpe said this week. “Virginia did have a lot of success against them, so we’ve been watching that film a lot to see the type of things that they did and the kind of schemes they ran to have success on such a good defense.”
UMass may not possess the defense, or the depth, to pull the upset, but it certainly touts the offensive pieces to make Saturday’s game more than a glorified scrimmage.
“Sharpe's going to be targeted, and I think what he's done a really good job with is his yards-after-catch,” Kelly said. “He's been a featured player in their offense for the last three years, so we just have to minimize the big play opportunities. He's going to get the football. He's going to make catches. We have to limit the game-wrecking opportunity.
“So one of our words, the vernacular for us is, make sure he's not a game wrecker. And he'll get his catches but we've got to minimize the big plays that he gets.”
That may be a difficult task to accomplish, considering who’s throwing him the ball. Frohnapfel passed for 3,345 yards and 23 touchdowns last season, making an immediate impact after transferring from Marshall. Without an adequate running game, Frohnapfel threw often.
Thus far in 2015, that trend hasn’t changed.
“One of the things that surprised me when he first got here was how accurate he was,” Sharpe said. “He throws such an accurate ball and he puts you in great places to make plays when he gives you an opportunity. Also, his work ethic off the field…he puts in so much time in the film room. He studies his opponent so much, and it shows on Saturdays.”
Unfortunately, passing yards haven’t always yielded wins, as Frohnapfel dissected a vaunted Temple defense for 393 passing yards and three passing touchdowns last week, but fell, 25-23. If UMass (0-2) can turn the corner, it will be on the strength of Frohnapfel’s arm and Sharpe’s proven hands, which have accumulated a team-high 22 catches and 294 receiving yards.
Sharpe has piled up catches of 45 and 41 yards in the previous two games as well, flashing significant big-play potential.
“From the first workout, seeing the way he ran and the way he moved, you don’t see that often,” Frohnapfel said of Sharpe. “Just to see the way he plays, and building our chemistry, we both kind of knew it was going to be something special.”
On Saturday, the big-picture goal for Notre Dame’s defense is simple enough:
Don’t let Frohnapfel and Sharpe wreck the game (and, in turn, the season).
On the other side, Massachusetts’ prolific duo hopes its production translates on a national stage.
“Playing a great team like Notre Dame, they have great tradition at that university,” Sharpe said. “You always want to play against the best competition and see how you measure up. It’s going to be very exciting. The crowd’s going to be into it. It’s going to be a great atmosphere.
“As a player, those are the types of games that you dream of.”