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Moller: It’s time to give the Vikings the respect they deserve

With last week’s Thanksgiving victory over the New England Patriots, the Minnesota Vikings currently hold an impressive 9-2 record. They hold a staggering five-game lead over the Detroit Lions in the NFC North. Despite the Vikings’ impressive record and dominance in the NFC North, the Vikings have received very little respect as a true contender for the Super Bowl.

In fact, in ESPN’s power rankings this week, the Vikings found themselves ranked sixth behind three teams with three losses. This included the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins, whom the Vikings have beaten on the road this season. Additionally, the article set a realistic prediction for the Vikings as splitting their final six games of the season. Four of the five teams ranked above them had a Super Bowl trip as their realistic prediction.

I know the Vikings have been made fun of all year for their close victories. But at the end of the day, a 9-2 record has to mean something regardless of the path to it. I will concede that the blowout losses to the Eagles and Cowboys were embarrassing, to say the least. But the Vikings’ ability to find a way to win close games should overshadow these losses.

It’s not like the Vikings haven’t faced a difficult schedule, either. In fact, of the five teams ranked ahead of the Vikings in this week’s ESPN power rankings (Kansas City, Philadelphia, Buffalo, Dallas and Miami), only the Bills and Cowboys have a stronger strength of schedule than the Vikings. The Vikings also have a stronger strength of victory than every team ahead of them except those two.

I’ve been saying this for the last couple of weeks, and I will say it again: The Vikings need to be considered as a serious contender for the Super Bowl. And Vikings fans must understand, with a record this good, anything less than a Super Bowl appearance is a disappointment. While I will admit that the Chiefs, Eagles and Cowboys are more serious contenders than the Vikings at the moment, the Vikings have shown that they have the tools to be considered one of the NFL’s best teams, as well.

To really emphasize my point that the Vikings are a Super Bowl contender, let’s look back to the Vikings’ stunning 33-30 overtime win in Buffalo a couple of weeks ago. Although the game was coined as “the game of the year” because of the stunning back-and-forth ending, the Vikings showed that they could step up in a harsh road environment and still get a victory.

Trailing 27-10 with less than two minutes in the third quarter, the Vikings could have given up. But instead, a Dalvin Cook 81-yard run put the Vikings right back in the game. After struggling to contain Josh Allen and the Buffalo offense all day, the Vikings’ defense stiffened up at the right time in the game, which allowed Minnesota to edge closer at the end of the fourth quarter. 

Yes, they ultimately received some help with Josh Allen’s fumble on the goal line with under a minute left to take the lead. But that doesn’t diminish the Vikings’ stunning comeback in any way. Against all odds, the Vikings were able to battle back and ultimately win a high-stakes game against a great football team in overtime. If that isn’t a Super Bowl-worthy performance, then I don’t know what is. 

That whole game, the Vikings also relied heavily on their best player, wide receiver Justin Jefferson. Jefferson alone is a valid reason for why the Vikings should be in the mix for the Super Bowl. The third-year wide receiver has proven himself time and time again by making crazy highlight-reel catches when his team needs him most. After last Thursday’s 139-yard performance against the Patriots, Jefferson sits second in receiving yards this season, trailing Tyreek Hill by only one yard. Teams that win Super Bowls have guys like Justin Jefferson.

Another reason the Vikings have been doubted all season is quarterback Kirk Cousins. Although I’ll admit that I am not the biggest Cousins fan, Cousins has been really good this season. He is currently seventh in the NFL in passing yards and is tied for ninth in passing touchdowns. He hasn’t been flashy by any means, but the strong supporting cast has allowed Cousins to find success.

I know there has been some talk about Cousins’ shortcomings on primetime. But his stats against the Patriots during a primetime win on Thanksgiving were pretty good. Cousins completed 30/37 passes for nearly 299 yards and three touchdowns, proving that he can succeed on the big stage.

I haven’t even mentioned the Vikings’ midseason acquisition from the Detroit Lions, tight end T.J. Hockenson. Hockenson’s addition to the Vikings has been huge so far, giving Cousins another reliable target and endzone threat. The Vikings were seriously lacking in the tight end department before Hockenson’s arrival. He has fulfilled every need the Vikings had at that position. That kind of move is something you see in Super Bowl contenders. And Hockenson’s addition might be the difference in the Vikings finally being able to make the Super Bowl.

I am not saying that I would pick the Vikings to make the Super Bowl. It’s more than likely that in typical Vikings fashion, they trip up in the divisional round or conference championships like every Vikings team since 1976. I am saying, however, that this Vikings team needs to receive more respect. They should at least be considered as one of the teams with the best shots at the Super Bowl. Going 9-2 to start the season doesn’t just happen by coincidence.

Contact Nate Moller at nmoller2@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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Markezich, Solomon earn All-America honors at cross country national meet

The Notre Dame men’s and women’s cross country teams competed at the NCAA Cross Country Championships this past weekend with the women finishing in seventh place and the men finishing 15th. The women finished with 261 points, and the men finished with 452 points. 

Head coach Matt Sparks said that both teams were hoping to finish higher coming into the race.

“We were kind of on the back end of what our goals were. The women were hoping for a top-four or five finish. The men were hoping for top ten, and they were obviously just off of that,” Sparks said.

Markezich leads women

Junior Olivia Markezich led the way for the women, finishing the 6K race eighth overall with a time of 19:46.4. That performance was good for Markezich’s second consecutive All-American honor. 

“The highlights were some of the big individual performances that you saw. Olivia’s finish in eighth and just a couple of seconds out of finishing top five was just another step for her in being one of the elite women’s distance runners in America,” Sparks said.

Sophomore Erin Strzelecki was the second runner for the Irish, finishing in 54th place with a time of 20:17.8. Senior Katie Thronson, who came in 68th place, followed Strzelecki as the third Irish runner.

Solomon, Steury highlight men’s performances

On the men’s side, sophomore Carter Solomon led Notre Dame. He earned All-American honors with an 18th place finish and a 29:18.8 time in the 10K race. Freshman Izaiah Steury was the second Irish runner to cross the line, finishing 63rd with a time of 30:13.7.

“For Carter Solomon, at his first NCAA championships ever, to finish 18th was a nice step for him. On the course, he has become a great leader for our program, and off the course as well. He’s really found his voice,” Sparks said. “It’s going to be neat to see him grow within the program and have the program follow him over the next couple of years.”

Sparks also commented on Steury’s strong finish as a true freshman:

“Izaiah Steury was really frustrated with his race, but when we looked back on it, he was the first true freshman finisher in the competition. There were a couple of redshirt kids that beat him. It shows how veteran experience was important at the front of that field, especially on the men’s side,” Sparks said.

Slow start sets Irish behind pace

While there were individual highlights, Sparks wished that his team had gotten out to an overall faster start in Saturday’s race.

“The field is very crowded and there is a lot of parity amongst the individuals and teams out there. Not a whole lot is going to change among the team scores within the last half of the race. We have to get out and put ourselves in the position we want to be in early in the race. Those that did that were Olivia, Carter and Izaiah, and they held onto those spots really well,” Sparks said. 

Those slow starts plagued the Irish all year, but throughout the season, the Irish had gained spots late in races. On the biggest stage, they failed to repeat the feat.

“On Saturday we had some kids that hoped to get out faster in the race, and they just couldn’t find themselves to the front of the race early in the competition. They spent the last three-quarters of the race trying to make up places, and they just couldn’t do it with the talented field they were competing against,” Sparks said.

Bright future after young stars shine

With plenty of talent returning next year, Sparks is excited to see his top runners continue to grow and lead the program, especially with some talented freshmen that are ready to step up as well.

“The front ends of our teams are young, which bodes well for a year from now,” Sparks said. “The youth of the team is what led us on Saturday and that’s the same group that we are going to need going forward. We redshirted a really talented group of freshmen that we will expect to fill in some gaps as we graduate some of the older guys we have in the program.”

With the cross country season over, Sparks turns his attention to the indoor track season where he hopes the Irish can continue to find success in the distance medley relay and other distance events on the track.

“We have a great tradition in the distance medley relay, and I would like to build upon that and still stay in the front of the national scene. We have had a lot of success in the 10K and steeplechase with both genders. The athletes that you saw leading the way for us during cross country we hope will excel in those events when we get on the track,” Sparks said.

Contact Nate Moller at nmoller2@nd.edu.

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Keys to victory versus Boston College

The Irish are coming off of their first four game win streak of the season, and they will look to extend their late season surge with a win against Boston College on senior day. Here are the keys to an Irish victory this Saturday against the Eagles.

1. Play four quarters of football

At times this season, the Irish have looked like one of the best teams in the country. At other times, however, the Irish have looked incompetent on both sides of the ball. This was apparent in last week’s win over Navy, where the Irish jumped out to a 35-13 lead at halftime, but then had to hold on for a 35-32 win. 

The first half of that game saw junior quarterback Drew Pyne and the Irish offense firing on all cylinders, as Pyne threw for four touchdown passes and had his way with the Midshipmen defense. In the second half, however, the Irish offense ceased to exist, totaling just two net yards the entire half. Pyne also looked like a completely different quarterback, as he took five sacks and threw an interception.

This inconsistent play has been common for the Irish this season. For example, the Irish hadn’t scored a touchdown in the first quarter until the seventh game of the season. This inconsistent play also led to a loss against Stanford this season because the Irish had failed to score in the first half of the game.

This Saturday, the Irish need to play sixty minutes of football if they want to avoid an upset against the upset-hungry Eagles, who are coming off of a stunning ranked win against North Carolina State. If the Irish have a lapse in play again, then they might very well find themselves on the losing end of yet another upset.

2. Run the football

This has been a theme in keys to victory for the Irish, but it is still essential as ever that the Irish establish the run game and stick to it throughout the entire course of the game. In the second half of the Navy game, the Irish were too one dimensional in the passing game, which led to a completely ineffective half on the offensive side of the football. 

Boston College ranks 82nd in the FBS in rushing defense, and they are allowing a healthy 4.12 yards per carry. In the Irish win two weeks ago against Clemson, the Irish showed that they could run the football against a high quality rushing defense team. The Irish need to commit to running the football again on Saturday against an inferior Eagles’ defense that has struggled to stop the run all season. The Irish have established a dangerous trio of running backs in sophomore Logan Diggs, sophomore Audric Estime and junior Chris Tyree, and they should rely heavily on all three of them to lead the way for the Irish on offense come Saturday.

Another reason the Irish may have to rely on the run game is the weather forecast for Saturday’s game. With the expected high hovering around 28 F with winds expected, it will make it even more difficult for the Irish to find success in the passing game. 

3. Continue to find success on special teams

One of the strong suits of this Notre Dame team has been the special team units, specifically the punt block team. Through ten games this season, the Irish have recorded seven blocked punts, which is first in the FBS. In the win against Clemson two weeks ago, the blocked punt generated a special teams touchdown, and last week, the Irish scored just one play after the blocked punt. It seems like every time the Irish block a punt, the offense pounces on their opportunity to put points on the board. In a game where the score might be lower because of the weather, the Irish could use yet another blocked punt to spark the offense. 

Aside from blocking punts, the Irish have excelled in the punting game this season. Graduate student punter Jon Sot has been more than reliable for the Irish this season, and he is averaging 40.86 net yards per punt this season. Although the Irish will try to avoid punting the ball this weekend, in situations where they have to, they will lean on Sot again to set the Eagles’ offense up with poor field position.

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‘For the Brotherhood’: Jayson Ademilola steps up for his teammates when they need him most

Graduate student defensive lineman Jayson Ademilola has been a huge part of the Irish defense the last two seasons, and he has found ways to make big plays at the most important of times this season. 

So far this season, Ademilola has been key to the Irish defense, totaling 24 total tackles, six solo tackles, three tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks.

Arguably the biggest moment for Ademilola came in Las Vegas against BYU. With the Cougars driving late in the game, Ademilola came up with a big stop on a key fourth-and-one with the Irish up by eight points. Head coach Marcus Freeman praised Ademilola for his timely stop after the win against BYU.

“At the biggest moments, he shows up,” Freeman said. “He’s going to make sure he makes a play.”

Jayson’s twin brother, Justin, commented on Jayson’s stop after the game. 

“[Jayson] was really excited. I think I got the stop before on the third down, and then I said ‘Jay, go get it right now. Let’s win it.’ And he did just that,” Ademilola said. 

Justin also talked about how his brother writes FTB, which stands for ‘For the Brotherhood,’ on his body before every game.

“Jayson is a very emotional guy and every game he puts FTB on his wrist, arm and all over his body. And when it’s time to go get it for the brotherhood, he’s going to get it and get it done for the brotherhood,” Ademilola said.

After practice this week, Jayson commented on how the lead up to senior day has been and what it means to his family to have both twins on the field Saturday.

“It’s been great. I am so happy for my family,” Ademilola said. “They are coming out here for the last time for the last home game. I talked to my parents and Justin this morning, and they are super excited to capture the whole moment.”

And in terms of how meaningful this final trip will be for them, Ademilola said, ““It’s going to be great. It’s going to be a great experience for my family. Justin and I are excited for the moment, but I know that [my family] are probably going to have even bigger smiles on their face knowing that we made it this far. It’s going to be a great moment for my family.”

The Ademilola family will be celebrating their sons five year careers with the Fighting Irish. The pair arrived in 2018 and while Jayson took to the field immediately, Justin saved a year of eligibility. Ademilola discussed what the college journey with his brother has been like since they arrived their freshman year and how it feels to have the chance to play with each other.

“We still remember our first day on campus, our first camp and our first game. It’s just a journey, and we are grateful to even be here,” Ademilola said. “Sometimes you just go on with the day. I don’t think about it as much anymore, but I do get times where I realize that I am really doing this with my twin brother. Not many people can say that they even went to college with their family, and we get to play football together at the highest level.”

Ademilola recalled the first summer camp he ever went to at Notre Dame. There, he met some of his lifelong Notre Dame friends and teammates.

“From that day, it was seeing who were going to be my best friends during my time at Notre Dame … Now I am a fifth year senior, and a lot of years have gone by, but we are still close,” Ademilola said.

Ademilola understands the importance of enjoying the final set of college football games with his brother.

“We are really just trying to enjoy the moment,” Ademilola said. “We are probably going to remember the last three games of the season really well, so why not go out with a bang. That’s really what our thought process is at, which is to try to be the best versions of brothers around for the last three games.”

Ademilola believes that the work the team has done this season will have a huge impact on the Notre Dame football program in the upcoming years.

“This whole season, my only goal each week is to win and win one for the team and for the guys. This season is way more than what anyone ever expected. We may not talk about this season and what it was until another five years from now, but it’s a lot. It takes a lot to go out there and win,” Ademilola said.

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Ositadinma Ekwonu emerges as a senior leader for Irish special teams unit

Although senior defensive lineman Ositadinma Ekwonu has had to endure some injuries during his time at Notre Dame, he has still emerged as a leader on and off the field for the Irish.

Ekwonu truly has embraced the Notre Dame spirit during his time here. He described how the people at Notre Dame are what sets it apart from other schools he considered during his recruiting process in high school.

“I think the most special thing about Notre Dame is all the really great people I have met along the way,” Ekwonu said. “The people are what set Notre Dame apart from other schools.”

One of the highlights from Ekwonu’s career came in his sophomore season against South Florida where he recorded two solo tackles and blocked a punt that was returned for a touchdown by now junior linebacker Jordan Botelho.

Ekwonu explained the emphasis on special teams at Notre Dame and why the unit has found so much success this year.

“The emphasis here is that we put our best players on special teams,” Ekwonu said. “It really helps us change the game on that side of the ball. Practicing and preparation has helped us affect the game and get a lot of blocked punts.”

Blocking punts became a frequently-used tool for the Irish this year, especially present in the most recent home game against Clemson. For Ekwonu, both wins against Clemson were his most memorable games. 

“I would definitely say both Clemson home games are the most memorable. Just coming in as underdogs and holding our own and then storming the field. Those were both pretty good games,” Ekwonu said.

Ekwonu tore his achilles last year which preceded a long recovery before the lineman could be back on the field.

“Thankfully, I am healthy now, but it was a long recovery process,” Ekwonu said. “Right now I am just getting back into the motion and swing of things.”

In light of his injury, Ekwonu has embraced his leadership role as a senior, and he has enjoyed helping out his younger teammates in every aspect of the game. 

“I definitely try to help the younger guys that come to me with questions on special teams, and I try to give them advice,” Ekwonu said. “It’s a hard process being here because you are challenged on and off the field.”

Ekwonu stepped into the “For the Brotherhood” culture of Notre Dame after playing in high school with his brother Ikem. Ikem played college football at UNC and while Ositadinma said it was different, it didn’t disrupt their relationship not to play together.  

“It was definitely an adjustment because we used to do everything together. We actually considered attending the same school, but it just didn’t work out,” Ekwonu said. “We always stayed in touch and talked all the time and we still are as close as ever.”

In his time with the Irish, Ekwonu saw the defensive coordinator hat pass from Clark Lea to Marcus Freeman and from Freeman to Al Golden. He said the transition has never been too difficult for him and his focus is learning the new play book in those transition moments.

“It’s really just learning the playbook as it comes. There have been three different defensive coordinators since I have been here and the main difference has just been learning the playbook as it comes,” Ekwonu said.

With the play book down for Golden, Ekwonu hopes that the Irish can start fast in their remaining two regular season games and bowl game to finish the season on a high note.

“We’re just trying to start fast and play hard in the remaining games we have and win out the rest of the season,” Ekwonu said. “That starts with Boston College and then USC and then our bowl game.”

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Moller: Irish must build on momentum from Clemson win

The last time I wrote a column on the football team, the Irish were coming off of a stunning 16-14 home loss at the hands of a one-win Stanford team. Since I wrote that piece, the mentality surrounding Notre Dame football has completely changed after the Irish pulled off one of their best victories in recent memory last weekend against then-No. 4 Clemson.

With the newfound momentum, the Irish must focus on continuing to play good football against two subpar opponents in Navy and Boston College before they finish the season against top-10 USC. Although the Irish will likely enter the Navy and Boston College games as heavy favorites, the Irish were also heavy favorites in their losses to Stanford and Marshall earlier this year. If they overlook either of these opponents, they could be in danger of being upset again.

So how do the Irish continue to dominate going forward? They need to keep running the football. Against Clemson and Syracuse, the Irish stuck to the run game consistently, running the ball 47 and 56 times, respectively. In games where the Irish have run the ball well, they have won. Against Marshall and Stanford, the Irish failed to establish the run game early. And that cost them as the game endured.

Sophomore running backs Audric Estime and Logan Diggs have been the two biggest contributors in the run game. It certainly seems that the Irish have found their two-headed monster going forward. Both running backs have shown a great amount of physicality and ability to find the holes, and this has led to their overwhelming success over the last few games.

I am still not completely sold on junior quarterback Drew Pyne. But he has been solid as of late and avoided making too many mistakes. But this is in part because of Notre Dame’s strong run game over the last couple of contests. The Irish must keep running the ball going forward. When Pyne has had to pass in third and long situations, it typically hasn’t gone too well. So establishing the run game and getting into third and manageable will be essential for Pyne and the offense’s effectiveness.

Another issue the Irish have addressed in their last couple of games is getting off to a slow start. In their first six games of the season, the Irish failed to score a touchdown in the first quarter. Over the last three games, however, the Irish have changed the narrative, outscoring their opponents 37-14 in the first quarter. Getting off to a good start has allowed the Irish to settle in and run the ball, rather than trying to play catch up and having to throw the ball. It has also taken some of the pressure off of the Irish players. The early leads have allowed them to settle in and stick to their game plan from start to finish.

The Irish have also seemingly turned the script in the turnover battle over the last two games of the season. After getting only a handful of turnovers across the first six games of the season, the Irish have now recorded four interceptions in the last two games. Two of those interceptions were pick-sixes that changed the flow of the game. In the Syracuse game, graduate student safety Brandon Joseph’s pick-six gave the Irish the lead on the opening play. And against Clemson, freshman cornerback Benjamin Morrison’s 96-yard interception return virtually sealed the game for the Irish.

It truly seemed that in some of the early games like Stanford, the ball just wasn’t falling in favor of the Irish defense. And it was starting to cause frustration. Lately, that has changed. And the Irish deserve credit for successfully translating those momentum swings to better play on both sides of the football.

In my previous column, I told the Irish to have some pride after their abysmal home loss to Stanford. It was evident against Clemson that the Irish were by no means lacking any pride or confidence in their identity. That energy and excitement around the team last weekend showed that the foundation has been laid for the Freeman era at Notre Dame. That Clemson win showed that the program is heading in the right direction. There might be some bumps along the way, head coach. But Marcus Freeman has proved he has the ability to coach an elite football team going forward.

I would not be surprised if the Irish struggle in another game this season like they did against Stanford or Marshall. However, everyone has now seen Marcus Freeman’s potential as a coach. And I am confident that Notre Dame is going to be a really good football team in a couple of years down the road. I said in my previous article that the Irish had to prove the doubters the rest of the season. They did just that against Clemson last Saturday. Now, it’s time to build off of that and end the season on a high note.

Contact Nate Moller at nmoller2@nd.edu.

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Cross country teams prepared for regionals, seek spot in national meet

The Notre Dame men’s and women’s cross country teams will look to secure a place in the national meet this Friday when they compete at the NCAA Great Lakes Regional meet in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Head coach Matt Sparks acknowledged that his team understands the high stakes of this meet. He also said the coaches have tried to decrease the amount of pressure on the athletes by treating preparation for this meet like any other.

“One of the themes of the way we coach our sport is to just continue to repeat the process. We don’t build up, and we don’t treat any meet as especially bigger than the one before it,” Sparks said. “The kids know enough about each meet and where they stand and what they need to do. So we as coaches don’t put that extra pressure and anxiety into it for them.”

Sparks is pleased with how both teams have looked in practice over the last couple of weeks.

“We’ve had a great two weeks of practice. Things seem to be falling together at the right time for both genders,” Sparks said.

The men’s team struggled a bit at the ACC Conference Championships a couple of weeks ago. Despite being the favorties to win, the Irish finished fourth as a team.

Despite the disappointing race, Sparks was not concerned about the performance, but he suggested that he tweaked some things to make sure the men’s team was fresh for Friday.

“The men had a little bit of a rougher conference meet than the women did,” Sparks said. “So we adjusted some things over the last couple of weeks to freshen some people up and get them more ready to go.”

Sparks hopes that the men’s team can have a faster start Friday as they try to rebound from ACCs.

“Getting off to a great start, I think it’s a key in any athletic endeavor to give yourself a chance to be successful,” Sparks said. “If you have some rough patches early in the competition, it’s sometimes hard to recover from those. That’s a little bit what the men’s team has struggled with getting a little bit lost early in the race. They were able to rally at the Joe Piane and the Nuttycombe meet to finish well. At the ACC meet, they just couldn’t pull it together the last half of the race.”

Sparks discussed the emergence of sophomore Carter Solomon, who placed first at the ACC Championships a couple of weeks ago, as a leader for the men’s team. Solomon was an elite runner in high school. And Sparks is ecstatic to see Solomon leading the team after two years under his belt in college.

“He quickly asserted himself about a month into the season and recognized that somebody needed to take the reins and be a leader,” Sparks said. “He’s been a great leader on the course, but also in the locker room. He’s vocal, and he’s well respected by everybody. It’s neat to see that maturation process for him to go from where he was as an elite high school kid, but it’s taken two years for him to recognize that it is his turn now to be the leader.”

On the women’s side, Sparks is excited to see his team compete after impressively finishing second at the ACC Championships. The Irish finished only a couple of points back from top-ranked and defending national champions North Carolina State.

“The women have been especially healthy and had a great conference meet,” Sparks said. “NC State is number one in the country, and we gave them a good run for their money. That was exciting and gave everybody a lot of confidence for what the next two weeks should entail, that we are starting to see ourselves with those truly elite programs in the country.”

Sparks said he thought the women benefited from a smaller field size at the ACC Championships, which allowed them to get out fast and have a good race.

“The last month, we’ve been racing competitions that had 25 teams in the race. It just gets very crowded, and it’s a challenge and you become lost in the crowd sometimes. The athletes were able to see their way to the front of the race [at ACCs]. We were out especially well, got up front, and felt very confident and rode that wave of confidence throughout the race,” Sparks said.

The top two teams at regionals automatically qualify for the national meet, with other teams qualifying via an at-large berth. The men’s team are the second-ranked team in the region and the women’s team the top-ranked. Sparks is hoping both can earn an automatic bid to the national meet.

“Our goal is to earn one of those two automatic berths,” Sparks said. “Last year we won both races, which would be a nice thing to repeat, but at the end of the day, all we need to do is finish in the top two to automatically qualify.”

With both team’s recent success in the meet, the Irish could have a target on their backs come Friday. Sparks emphasized the importance of taking care of business and each team running their own race.

“We just need to keep repeating the process and doing what we have always done,” Sparks said. “We control our own race, and that’s the theme we’ve talked about over the last couple of weeks. We need to do what we can do and not worry about what the other team might do. We might be the favorites coming into it. I feel like that makes things a little more exciting, in that we just need to take care of business and be the best version of ourselves on the day.”

The women’s 6K race will begin at 10 a.m. EST, followed by the men’s 10K race at 11 a.m. EST.

Contact Nate Moller at nmoller2@nd.edu.

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Keys to victory versus Clemson

After a convincing win against Syracuse last week, the Irish have a lot of momentum heading into their biggest home matchup of the season against the fifth-ranked Clemson Tigers. Marcus Freeman and the Irish will look to prove that they can play well at home and break some of their early season woes at Notre Dame Stadium. Clemson, who is coming off of a bye week, last played against Syracuse as well, beating the Orange by a narrow 27-21 margin. The Irish will have their work cut out for them against the undefeated Tigers. Here are the Irish keys to victory.

Take care of the football

In Notre Dame’s stunning losses to Marshall and Stanford this season, it was ultimately turnovers that prevented the Irish from winning. Against Marshall, it was sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner’s pick-six with just under five minutes to go. Against Stanford, sophomore running back Audric Estime’s fumble late in the fourth quarter sealed the Irish loss. 

Facing a Clemson team that has more talent and experience on both sides of the ball, the Irish simply can not afford to give up any possessions or give the Tigers good field position on Saturday. The good news for the Irish is that the Clemson defense hasn’t exactly been racking up turnovers, as they only generated 12 turnovers this season. Despite this, the Irish will need to be disciplined at key moments of the game and not make costly mistakes like they have in a couple of games earlier this season. 

One player to watch for the Irish is Audric Estime. Although Estime has put up impressive numbers this season with over 500 rushing yards with an average of 5.6 yards per carry, he has lost three fumbles. The Irish relied heavily on Estime against Syracuse, and Estime took care of the ball and was very productive in the run game. The Irish will need the same from him on Saturday if they are going to compete with the Tigers.

Stop Clemson’s run game

Another key to Irish victory on Saturday will be stopping the Clemson run game, which has averaged nearly 200 yards per game this season. The Tigers are led by sophomore running back Will Shipley, who has been sensational for the Tigers this year and is averaging six yards per carry. Shipley is also coming off his most impressive performance of the year. He rushed for 172 yards and two touchdowns against Syracuse two weeks ago. 

If Shipley and the Clemson offensive line are able to have their way with Notre Dame’s front seven, this game could be a blowout. The Irish run defense is ranked 51st in college football, and they have been very streaky this season. At times they have come up big in short-yardage situations, but they have also allowed nearly four yards per carry this season. They have been susceptible to allowing big yardage plays on the ground. Shipley is arguably the best running back the Irish have faced this season. Containing his production will be a challenge to say the least.

Even if they can contain Shipley, they have to worry about Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei, who can punish defenses with his mobility. Uiagalelei has 350 rushing yards this season, and his ability to be effective outside of the pocket could be an issue for the Irish. If the Irish are able to stop the run, however, they can potentially expose Uiagalelei’s bigger weakness in the passing game. Uiagalelei ranks just 45th in the FBS in passer rating.

Find success in the passing game

Although the Irish relied heavily on the run game in last week’s victory over Syracuse, that is going to be much tougher to do against a Clemson run defense that is ranked 7th in FBS and allows an average of just 2.98 yards per carry. It seems unlikely that the Irish will be able to lean on their run game to lead them to victory. 

For that reason, it is likely going to come down to junior quarterback Drew Pyne being able to make some plays, potentially in third and long situations. Since the BYU game, Pyne has completed just 48.6% of his passes, which isn’t going to cut it against Clemson. In the win against Syracuse, Pyne attempted just 19 passes, but it is quite possible he needs to throw the ball twice as much this Saturday and do so successfully. If the Irish are going to get Pyne comfortable in the pass game, they need the offensive line to step up against a Clemson team that averages nearly three sacks per game. Since the Stanford game, the offensive line has looked formidable, but they will face a difficult task against a talented Clemson front seven.

Aside from the offensive line, Pyne needs to have options available downfield other than junior tight end Michael Mayer. Assuming the Tigers do everything in their power to take Mayer out of the game, the Irish need at least a couple of receivers to step up. Sophomore Deion Colzie might be an option for the Irish, as he had a couple of catches in his return from injury against Syracuse. Freshman Tobias Merriweather and sophomore Jayden Thomas have also shown flashes of greatness this season, and they could be options for deep downfield plays as well. 

At the end of the day, though, it comes down to Pyne’s ability to find these open receivers. Too many times this season Pyne gets locked in on Mayer, and that has proved costly at times. Pyne has the opportunity of a lifetime on Saturday, and he has to be prepared to take advantage of his opportunity if the Irish are going to find a victory.

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‘It’s all about making each other better’: Junior captains prepared to lead club ahead of tournament

Ahead of the Baraka Bouts tournament next week, there is plenty of excitement among this year’s group of junior captains, who are eager to serve as leaders for their first time as a part of the club.

Frankie Masciopinto, who is majoring in peace studies and political science and currently resides in McGlinn Hall, emphasized the great community that Baraka Bouts has.

“I think the club fosters a great community and a really great group of girls,” Masciopinto said.

Nicole Lies, who majors in chemical engineering and lives in Welsh Family Hall, also praised the Baraka Bouts community.

“It’s very much a supportive community,” Lies said. “We are competing at the end of the day, but we all just want each other to get better and work out and have fun as a team.”

Baraka Bouts seeks to raise money for Holy Cross missions in East Africa. This year, the goal is to raise money for new dorms at Saint Joseph’s Hill Secondary School in Kyarusozi, Uganda.

Currently, the school has more kids than they can house, which has led to some kids not having dorm rooms and having to sleep in common spaces instead.

Emily Nowak, who is majoring in ACMS and lives in McGlinn, serves as one of the leaders for the missions. Nowak described some of the problems that Saint Joseph’s currently has and what the mission seeks to do.

“Currently, they have kids right now that are sleeping in rec rooms and hallways and very makeshift spaces. All of those kids that aren’t in regular dorm spaces will have a room plus there will be room for expansion,” Nowak said. “The mission is important to all of us.”

Sarah Nowak, a physics major living in Welsh Family Hall, explained how the importance of dorm life at Notre Dame has made this year’s mission that much more meaningful.

“I think as a Notre Dame student, for all of us, I know that dorm life is a huge part of our life here. That’s something that’s kind of unique to Notre Dame,” Nowak said. “I think it’s really special that we can give that back, specifically since we’re so big into dorm life here at ND. I think it’s really special that specifically, that is what we’re working towards this year.”

JJ Jorgensen, who resides in Lewis Hall and is majoring in management consulting, acknowledged that some new members are afraid to get into the ring initially but raising money for charity and the lessons learned from it make it all worth it.

“I think a lot of people realize through it that you test yourself, you meet a lot of cool people and you also get beat up for charity. I don’t think there’s any better way to raise money than to get out there and give it your all,” Jorgensen said.

Ellie Hammerschmitt, a science business major in Pasquerilla East Hall, echoed Jorgensen’s response and stressed the importance of the mission statement to each of the members of the club.

“We’re beating each other up and getting black eyes along the way, but it’s for a good cause at the end of the day, so it kind of makes it more worthwhile,” Hammerschmitt said.

Masciopinto said that one of the club’s biggest selling points is the mission statement because it allows students to make an impact on someone other than themselves.

“The most holistically Notre Dame thing you can do is to be a part of this club. Because not only are we participating in a unique sport and empowering each other, but we’re also doing something for the greater good, not just for ourselves,” Masciopinto said.

The club hopes to raise $75,000 for the mission by the time the tournament ends, and as of Sunday, they have already raised $46,000.

Lies is pleased with the amount the club has fundraised so far, and she hopes that donations continue to come in during the week leading up to the tournament.

“Fundraising has been coming in super fast because everyone’s getting excited for the tournament and kind of remembering what the missions are all about,” Lies said.

This is the first year in a leadership position for the junior captains, and Jorgensen explained that it has been fun having younger athletes ask her for advice on technique. 

“Having people come up to me and ask to spar me specifically, so I can help them out with their technique, it’s not only an honor, but it’s a great chance to step up as a leader in the club,” Jorgensen said.

Lily Whitman, who majors in neuroscience and resides in Lyons Hall, has enjoyed seeing her teammates improve throughout the season and gain more confidence both inside and outside of the ring. 

“One of the most fulfilling parts of leadership is seeing how the boxers that we’re teaching have developed throughout the season, whether they’re novices or they’re returning veterans. It’s been amazing to see not only a growth in their own technique but also their confidence both inside and outside the ring,” Whitman said.

As the tournament approaches, boxers have had to decide who they want to have in their corner to give advice and cheer them on throughout the fight. As a captain, Masciopinto has enjoyed being asked to corner younger athletes.

“We’re getting to the point where boxers choose who they’re going to have in their corner for the tournament. Something that’s very fulfilling is to have someone say they’ve put you down as a corner option,” Masciopinto said. “To have someone ask us for help or ask us to support them while they do the hardest part of this club is awesome.”

Jorgensen added that she thinks the junior captains are a great group because each one of them has a very different leadership style in the captain role.

“I think what’s great about our group of junior girls is all of us are really different. I think we all have different teaching and leadership styles. There’s a leader for everyone in the club that everyone can relate to. I think we just have a great mix of people,” Jorgensen said.

Each captain shared their favorite memory during their time with Baraka Bouts.

Lies said that her favorite memory was the Power Twelve Hour fundraiser from last year, in which the club stood outside of the bookstore for twelve straight hours doing different workouts and drills to try to raise money for the missions.

“I had so much fun at that fundraiser, but it really showed me everything that our club embodies and encompasses between the workouts, the training, the fundraising and the team bonding that was happening while having fun outside the bookstore,” Lies said. “That’s what really helped me fall in love with the club and fall in love with all the different parts of what it is.”

Sarah Nowak said her favorite aspect of the club has been its emphasis on body positivity and female empowerment.

“Our main mission is fundraising and helping those schools in Uganda. But we also really stress body positivity and female empowerment,” Nowak said. “The fact that our weights are so public and weight classes are such a big part of the sport, it’s been nice to see how everybody’s getting more comfortable with it. You evaluate your body based on what it can do and how it can perform, not how it looks or anything else. So that’s been really rewarding.”

According to Nowak, the first night of the bouts last season became her favorite memory with the club, especially since there hadn’t been a tournament during her freshman year because of the pandemic.

“My bout that night I lost terribly, but the environment and seeing the way the club comes together and the way the Notre Dame community comes together and how excited people get about it was really cool,” Nowak said. “I was not prepared at all for the energy in Dahnke, [Ballroom] and I was really blown away by just how fun and special that night was.”

Whitman echoed Nowak and said that the tournament last season was her favorite memory after not realizing the full scope of the club her freshman year.

“Sparring and preparing for the tournament was really exciting, but I was really nervous to step up in front of everyone,” Whitman said. “And Dahnke [Ballroom] was really intimidating. But going out and doing that on the first night and being in the ring no matter the outcome and just showing how hard I was working throughout the semester on something that I loved was really empowering.”

Hammerschmitt said that her favorite memory became fun run Fridays when the club runs around on gameday Fridays and does workouts across campus while raising money for the mission.

“It’s fun to be a part of something where we’re going around and we’re not just doing it to get ourselves noticed, but we’re getting money for the cause and for the mission,” Hammerschmitt said. “And when people hear that there’s a group of 100 girls running around raising money with stupid pink buckets, it’s funny because people actually get excited back.”

Masciopinto shared that her favorite memory occurred last year when she stayed after practice for the first time to spar and learn from an older captain.

“She was super encouraging. It was definitely very difficult at first because I had never done it. But it made me realize that a huge chunk of this club is learning from people that are basically your age and are amateurs of the sport too,” Masciopinto said. “You’re all just kind of figuring out something together. The leadership that she showed made me want to be more invested and keep going with that and actually compete.”

Jorgensen shared that her favorite memory was in the second round of last year’s tournament when she got beaten pretty badly by her opponent. Initially, Jorgensen said she was frustrated and embarrassed by the loss, but her opponent was very nice to her at the end of the fight and it ended up highlighting to Jorgensen what the true purpose of Baraka Bouts is.

“The way she carried herself after beating me, made me understand that it’s all about learning. It’s all about getting better. It’s all about making each other better. It’s not about going in there and beating each other up. It’s about fundraising and working towards something bigger than yourself,” Jorgensen said. “It’s okay to go in the ring and lose or not do well, but as long as you learn something and get something out of it, then that’s the whole point of this. I think it really changed my whole perspective on what it means to get into the ring and spar [with] other people. I think that is something I’ll always walk away with as being really valuable.”

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Moller: Are the Vikings poised to break their playoff woes?

As we approach the midway point of the season, the Minnesota Vikings have proven to be arguably the most surprising team in the NFL this season. With a 6-1 record, the Vikings have consistently found ways to win in close games, and they have thrust themselves into the Super Bowl conversation.

Coming into the season, many expected the Vikings to have a rebuilding year under first year head coach Kevin O’Connell. It has been anything but a rebuilding season in Minnesota so far, as the excitement surrounding this Vikings team continues to grow.

Although the Vikings finished with a losing record last season, eight of last season’s losses were decided by one score. So far this season, the Vikings have flipped the script with five of their six wins coming by one score. This difference comes down to the head coaching change. Last season with Mike Zimmer as head coach, the Vikings’ offense constantly faltered in late game situations. With this year’s O’Connell-led offense, quarterback Kirk Cousins has looked much more comfortable, and the offense has been able to close out games late and find ways to win.

Despite being a first year head coach, O’Connell and Cousins worked together before during Cousins’ time in Washington. As Cousins’ quarterback coach, O’Connell helped Cousins assert himself as a starter in the NFL, and since taking over for the Vikings, O’Connell has continued to propel Cousins’ game to the next level. I expect O’Connell to continue to improve Cousins’ game throughout the season and play to his strengths.

Despite his improvements this season, Cousins is by no means a top-tier NFL quarterback. He has, however, shown that he can use his weapons at wide receiver effectively to put up points. Cousins is pretty much middle of the road in all major stats, but having wide receiver Justin Jefferson as an option has opened up the big play for the Vikings this season. The third-year wide receiver has improved each year, and O’Connell’s schemes have been very successful in opening up receiving lanes for the young receiver.

In addition to Jefferson, the Vikings also possess veteran Adam Thielen, who has been a favorite of Cousins since his arrival in Minnesota. Although Thielen hasn’t been putting up the same stat lines of year’s past, he is still a serious red zone threat, and the chemistry between Cousins and Thielen is as strong as ever. The Vikings also have K.J. Osborn as their third receiver, and he has had plenty of clutch catches this year as well. 

The talent at running back is another one of Minnesota’s strengths. While Dalvin Cook continues to lead the backfield, Alexander Mattison is arguably one of the most talented backup running backs in the league. The duo has averaged nearly 100 rushing yards a game this season, and they have been the perfect complement to an explosive Vikings’ passing attack. 

Arguably the biggest concern for the Vikings coming into this season was the defense, most notably in the secondary. The current Vikings’ depth chart features Cameron Dantzler and Patrick Peterson starting at cornerback and Harrison Smith and Camryn Bynum at safety. Although Peterson and Smith are both formidable veterans at their positions, Peterson is long removed from his Pro-Bowl seasons and Smith is now 33 years of age. The two veterans are complemented by two young players in Dantzler and Bynum, who are continuing to build confidence as the season progresses. Andrew Booth Jr., who was drafted in the second round of this year’s draft, has also seen some playing time at cornerback.

Despite the mix of veterans and young players, the secondary has not been firing on all cylinders, as the Vikings currently rank in the bottom ten in the NFL in passing yards allowed. Injuries have been problematic for the Vikings as well, and the loss of rookie cornerback and 2022 first round pick Lewis Cine was a massive blow to an already thin Vikings’ secondary. 

One area that the Vikings have improved defensively this season has been in the pass rush and run defense. This season, the Vikings are allowing an average of 4.2 yards per carry, compared to last year’s 4.7 yards per carry. Additionally, the Vikings are averaging a respectable 3 sacks per game. This success among the front seven is in large part due to the addition of veteran Za’Darius Smith, who leads the team with 8.5 sacks this season. 

So, with all that being said, are the Vikings truly a Super Bowl contender? While the Vikings look like they might have the pieces this year, it is going to be tough for them to navigate the rest of the regular season and potentially the playoffs. Time after time when the Vikings have had an exciting team, the team has ultimately faltered in the playoffs.

Since losing in the Super Bowl four times between 1969 and 1977, the Vikings have gone 0-6 in conference championships. For whatever reason, the Vikings seemed to be cursed in the playoffs. In many of those conference championships, the Vikings have been so close, but ultimately they have been unable to get the job done. Whether it was a fluke missed field goal or the Saints’ infamous “Bountygate” incident, there has always seemed to be something to prevent the Vikings from finding success.

The biggest concern, however, might be Kirk Cousins’ performance in primetime. Cousins is known for his struggles on the big stage, and that was already apparent this year in the Vikings’ 24-7 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in week two this season. In that loss, Cousins threw three interceptions and finished with a horrendous 24.8 QBR. Considering the Vikings will very likely have to go through Philadelphia if they are to reach the Super Bowl, Cousins’ performance in that game is very concerning.

The Vikings undoubtedly have a very good football team this season, and I fully expect them to make the playoffs. With that being said, I am keeping my expectations in check for this Vikings’ team. The Vikings are arguably the most disappointing team in the NFL when it comes to choking in the playoffs, and it’s tough to imagine the Vikings breaking their curse this season.

Contact Nate Moller at nmoller2@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.