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Sports

History of the rivalry: Irish, Trojans set to battle with major stakes

There’s an argument to be made that Notre Dame-USC football is always appointment television. But when it’s a consensus top-15 matchup featuring a Heisman favorite, two teams with a combined 18-4 record and a Playoff spot on the line, it’s not even an argument. It’s a must-see game. 

That, among more, sets the stage for one of the most enticing duels of this historic rivalry in recent memory. For just the fourth time in series history, both teams have a new head coach. It’s two of the game’s youngest coaches in the well-established Lincoln Riley and the up-and-coming Marcus Freeman. 

On offense, the story is whether Caleb Williams can continue his Heisman parade, maybe adding his fifth game of four touchdown passes and no interceptions this season. The former Oklahoma gunslinger has been dominant all season, and the Irish must find a way of slowing him down. For Notre Dame, it’s about whether the Irish can bring their physicality to the west coast. The Irish have made a habit of dominating in the trenches, and in their most recent top-5 win, they had their way with Clemson, running the ball at will. USC hasn’t really faced a team that loves to establish the run game as much as the Irish do. Notre Dame’s prowess in the trenches could challenge a Trojan defense that has been porous at times, giving up 35+ points in four of the past five games. 

Defensively, two of the nation’s best pass-rushers go toe-to-toe, with Tuli Tuipulotu bringing his FBS-leading 11.5 sacks to the table. Senior Irish vyper Isaiah Foskey has 9.5 sacks, setting the Notre Dame program record for career sacks a week ago. USC for all their defensive deficiencies, lead the country with 18 interceptions. Notre Dame freshman cornerback Benjamin Morrison has five interceptions in his last three games, including a 96-yard pick-six versus Clemson. It’s going to be a battle in Los Angeles on Saturday night, the likes of which this rivalry hasn’t seen in a while. Here’s a look at a few other times the stakes were similar to what they will be when Freeman and Riley duel for the first time as head coaches. 

History of a top-15 ND-USC battle

In the past 50 years, the Irish and Trojans have met 14 times with both squads ranked inside the top 15. When playing those games, Notre Dame is 5-9 against the Trojans, but those wins have usually come in a big way. In the five Irish wins, Notre Dame emerged victorious by an average of 19 points per game. When the game took place in Southern California, however, Notre Dame went 1-5. The last time Notre Dame won at USC in a top-15 matchup was back in 1988.

These top-15 matchups occurred far more frequently in the 1970s and 80s. The two squads have met as top-15 opponents just four times this century. The most recent came in 2017 when No. 13 Notre Dame welcomed No. 11 USC to South Bend. The Irish blasted the Trojans, 49-14. Before that, the two teams had not faced off in a top-15 game since 2006. Between 2002-2006, the Trojans beat the Irish three times in such contests. 

One notable fact is the success of the favorites. Much is made of the ‘throw out the records’ in rivalry clashes, but in these 14 games, the lower-ranked team won just four times. Good news for the Irish? Three of those four upsets were in favor of Notre Dame, including that 2017 demolition. 

When a title is on the line

This limits the history to games at USC. Whenever the two teams play in South Bend, it’s a mid-October duel, so there aren’t direct postseason implications. However, some of the season-ending games in Los Angeles have propelled both teams to national championship opportunities.

Most recently, Notre Dame’s last two wins in USC have both been to extend their season. In 2012, Notre Dame entered the game unbeaten and ranked No. 1. USC put up a fight, but Notre Dame pulled away late for a 22-13 win, sealing a spot in the BCS National Championship.

In 2018, the Irish won at USC again, 24-17. That win clinched an unbeaten regular season and a College Football Playoff berth. Before that, the teams hadn’t met with Playoff or national championship aspirations since 1988. Then, of course, No. 1 Notre Dame blasted No. 2 USC, 27-10 en route to their most recent national championship. In both 1972 and 1974, USC vaulted themselves to a national championship via late-November home victories over the Irish. 

Can the Irish play spoiler?

Neither team often played spoiler throughout this rivalry. Frequently, when a playoff or championship berth was on the line, the favored team managed to reel in the victory. That’s what USC is looking to do this weekend. A win and an ensuing Pac-12 championship victory could push the Trojans to their first-ever College Football Playoff. When there’s a spoiler, it’s frequently been USC. The Trojans have ruined the hopes of the visiting Irish on a few occasions over the course of the rivalry. Most notably, in 1964, an unranked USC squad defeated unbeaten and No. 1 Notre Dame 20-17, depriving the Irish of a national championship. In 1970 and 1980, the Trojans knocked their rivals out of championship contention. 

Notre Dame enters this game with a chance to do something they’ve really never accomplished. With no national title hopes of their own, they have a chance to bury the Trojans’ championship dreams. In 1947, the Irish went on the road and beat No. 3 USC to end their title hopes, but Notre Dame was ranked No. 1 and favored in the game. This would be the first time Notre Dame truly pulled off a road upset that ended USC’s season (in terms of championship aspirations). 

There’s a lot on the line Saturday. Notre Dame could play true spoiler for arguably the first time in the series. In doing so, they could put themselves in consideration for a New Year’s Six bowl game with their second top-10 win of the season. USC is looking to vault into the Playoff with a win over the Irish, and they also have a chance to match Notre Dame with a seventh Heisman winner. A big performance from Caleb Williams in this one should make the USC quarterback the clear favorite in the race. 

It’s been five years since these two teams met when both were ranked. Now, with two new head coaches, two red-hot teams in the top 15 and plenty at stake, the rivalry’s juice is renewed, with one of the biggest games in recent history occurring Saturday night in the Coliseum.

Contact Aidan Thomas at athoma28@nd.edu.

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Sports

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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Sports

ZeLO makes conference title and bowl game picks

I will come right out and say it: This week of college football is boring. Of the top-25 teams playing on Saturday, the average point spread is 14.7. That feels like Vegas telling you that you can turn your TV off and go for a walk.

Do not get me wrong, there are good games. No. 7 USC takes on No. 16 UCLA in a game that could eliminate USC from its playoff chase. No. 4 TCU is only a 2.5 favorite on the road against Baylor. And since when has a ranked, 21-point favorite Notre Dame not felt like a trap game?

But bar No. 6 LSU dropping the ball against 14.5 underdog UAB, this weekend feels short on drama. So instead of breaking down individual games I dub important, I would rather look ahead and predict conference championship weekend, the CFP and the NY6. If you want to know whom ZeLO thinks will win the Notre Dame BC game, you will have to check out the graphic made by our wonderful graphics department (spoiler: it’s Notre Dame).

Conference Championship Weekend

The Locks

The SEC and ACC have already been decided, with LSU and Georgia squaring off for the SEC while UNC and Clemson head to Charlotte. Not surprising to anyone, Georgia is ZeLO’s heavy favorite to make the title game, with the Bulldogs having a 70% chance of taking the crown. That snarling Bulldogs defense should be able to give LSU’s offense fits, especially after Arkansas slowed the Tigers significantly last week.

Meanwhile, the ACC should be a much more watchable game. Though the Tigers have been a favorite to win the crown all season, ZeLO has it as a close one. The Tigers still win; however, UNC’s atrocious defense (ranked 121st) will make DJ and the gang look better than they are.

Up for Grabs

The Big 12, Big 10, and Pac-12 are all still up for grabs. Here are the most likely pairings for each championship game:

ZeLO has TCU playing a rematch game against No. 15 Kansas State. The last time these two teams faced down, TCU needed to overcome an 18-point deficit, which they did with ease, winning 38-28.

Right now, ZeLO has TCU as the favorite, with a 22.4% chance of ending the season as an unbeaten regular season champ and conference champion. The Wildcats would love to ruin their chances.

The Big 10 will be the winner of Ohio State vs. Michigan and whoever wins the royal rumble that is the West. Four teams (Purdue, Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota) are 4-3. Of those four, Purdue has the easiest strength of schedule and the best odds of winning out. Just who is Purdue playing, though? The Buckeyes are slightly favored over Michigan. This game may be skippable…

As for the Pac-12, ZeLO currently has Oregon facing off against UCLA. It is odd, but ZeLO has Oregon and UCLA winning out. Seeing as Oregon faces Utah this weekend and UCLA plays USC, those two teams should be heavily favored to make it to the conference championship.

I will add that that is an improbable scenario, but it is ZeLO’s. ZeLO has been high on UCLA and Oregon all season long, so it does not feel like a surprise that ZeLO would have these two competing for the title. If you do not like that scenario, I will do you one better. UCLA wins the crown. It is not my prediction; a spreadsheet made it. So, that leaves us with Georgia, TCU, Clemson, Ohio State and UCLA (yes, I know) as the conference champions.

Based on current CFP rankings and the ZeLO Prestige Rankings, the likeliest order would be Georgia, Ohio State, TCU and then Clemson, though there is a chance that the committee ousts Clemson for Tennessee.

Considering Tennessee is ZeLO’s fourth net-ranked team, this would be the more innovative move, though it would likely mean that TCU is bumped to fourth to avoid a repeat matchup.

NY6
Capital One Orange Bowl

Two teams claim to play in Death Valley, and both have Tiger mascots. That is right, ACC champion Clemson takes on SEC runner-up LSU, with Brian Kelly getting a rematch against Dabo Swinney.

Clemson has had an offensive down year and genuinely struggles on offense, ranking 42nd. LSU is by no means an offensive juggernaut, but their defense should be able to frustrate DJ Uiagalelei more than Clemson can Jayden Daniels.

Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic

Given Alabama’s high ranking but impossibility of making the CFP, the Cotton Bowl would be an excellent finish for the Tide. It might not be the season they wanted, but overall, it’s a good one.

The Group of 5 team is a harder prediction. Based on the committees’ current rankings, I am inclined to put UCF here. They rank 19th in ZeLO’s net rankings and are the second-highest Prestige Ranking Group of 5 team.

ZeLO has Coastal Carolina as a slightly better Prestige team, but that is forecasting the season’s end. For now, it is the Knights.

Now, UCF can finally try to prove they legitimately won a championship, like they did in 2017 (ZeLO thinks they won’t).

Rose Bowl Game Presented by Capital One

Because ZeLO is so high on UCLA, ZeLO has them as a strong contender to make the Rose Bowl. Fitting, as UCLA plans on becoming a part of the Big 10 soon. Why not give them a sample of their new competition in Michigan?

ZeLO thinks the Bruins might regret the switch.

Allstate Sugar Bowl

The most likely teams for the Sugar Bowl are Oklahoma State and Ole Miss, as both are strong teams who failed to make their conference championship.

CFP
Fiesta Bowl

Although TCU made the CFP, ZeLO has Georgia in another class of team. There are currently five teams for whom ZeLO has above 100 net points. TCU is on the outside looking in, sitting in sixth. As a result, the defending champion Bulldogs continue their defense.

Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl

The Buckeyes are ZeLO’s No. 1 team and have been all season. Although Tennessee sits 4th in the net rankings, Ohio State makes it to the title game to face off against the Bulldogs.

CFP National Championship

Though ZeLO loves the Buckeyes, Georgia is simply an elite team. Georgia is currently the third-ranked team by net, boasting the sixth-best and seventh-ranked offense.

The only problem? Ohio State boasts the third-ranked offense and fifth-ranked defense. The Buckeyes pick up their ninth national championship and first under Ryan Day.

Contact Tom Zwiller at tzwiller@nd-hcc.edu.

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News

Study finds Notre Dame football to have second largest fanbase in nation

Despite an undergraduate student population far smaller than that of other traditional college football powerhouses, a study from this past summer found Notre Dame to have the second largest fanbase in college football at an estimated 8.21 million.

The study, put together by strategy consultant Tony Altimore at Altimore Collins & Company, ranked the top-16 largest college football fanbases. It found Ohio State to have the largest fanbase in the country at 11.26 million fans. Texas trailed Notre Dame at number three, followed by Penn State and Michigan.

Altimore, who attended USC and has worked with consulting companies such as Deloitte and Booze Allen, as well as the CIA, used sources such as FiveThirtyEight, The New York Times and Vivid Seats to draw his conclusions. He normalized his findings with data from the census and Google. Although he admits the data is “not perfect,” Altimore said he was able to document insightful findings about loyalties toward college football programs.

“What I really wanted to do was help sports fans see how the teams they rooted for aligned with the college’s institutional strategy,” Altimore said. “Sports are just a small chunk of what a university is.” 

Notre Dame differentiates itself from most universities by how it establishes a unique identity outside of football, Altimore explained.

Many of the colleges with top fanbases have a strong “sense of place” and encapsulate “the essence of its people,” he said. Football teams like Ohio State, West Virginia and USC align their branding and image with their respective state and regions and subsequently draw many fans simply due to geography.

“Someone in southern Indiana might not necessarily always root for the Fighting Irish. They may be a Purdue fan, or even an IU (Indiana University) fan,” Altimore said. “But for the majority of people in Ohio, they feel a connection to OSU and feel as though they can root for it.” 

According to Altimore, Notre Dame doesn’t necessarily shine in the proximity of its fanbase or even the size of its alumni network. Altimore said what makes Notre Dame such a national fanbase is its unique and successful branding, along with its track record and deep football history. 

“Notre Dame has a great combination of national recognition, relevance and strong brand identity,” Altimore said. “Notre Dame fans are everywhere.”

Whereas colleges like USC appeal to a large population of fans, they are mostly concentrated in Los Angeles, with fans that tend to “fully lean into L.A. stereotypes,” Altimore said. Notre Dame fans are so spread out across the nation that they do not have to live in South Bend or graduate from the University to feel a part of the fanbase, he said.  

Notre Dame’s Catholic identity and reputation as a premier academic institution create an inviting brand image that appeals to a wide variety of fans across the U.S., Altimore said. Notre Dame also brings in fans who attended small Catholic schools with no football teams. Notre Dame has such a large fanbase, he explained, that it is the leading college football fanbase in New York City. 

But it’s not just the University’s Catholic heritage and academic rigor that make Notre Dame an attractive fanbase.

“Winning matters,” Altimore said.

This is why football teams from the Ivy League have deteriorated in recent decades, he explained, because although they draw a lot of national recognition and have large alumni bases, they do not experience much success on the gridiron. Because of their poor track records, children of Ivy League fans tend not to become fans themselves, Altimore said.

While Notre Dame has not won a national championship since 1988, they have consistently stayed relevant with successful regular seasons.

Altimore said he was surprised to find that fanbase size did not affect television and streaming ratings as much as he assumed it would.

“People who watch college football don’t just watch their team,” Altimore explained. “They also tune in to watch their competition. People will watch Notre Dame games whether or not they like Notre Dame because Notre Dame is a relevant team who are fun to watch.” 

Drawing from this data also allowed Altimore to make predictions about the future of college football fanbases and viewings. Altimore believes the sport might start to see a split in fanbases, similar to British football teams.

“In Britain, fans cheer for local teams just based off of proximity, as well as cheer for one of the globally recognized teams like Manchester United or Chelsea.”

Altimore thinks that college football might be headed that way as well.

“Fans might cheer for Southern Illinois because they live close to it but also cheer for Notre Dame because they like the Irish.”

Contact Gracie Eppler at geppler@nd.edu.

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Sports

Keys to victory versus Navy

Notre Dame took their biggest win of the season last weekend, accomplishing three goals: changing the narrative of the season at home, defeating No. 4 Clemson and breaking back into the CFP rankings. 

At No. 20, the Irish head east to Baltimore, Maryland to take on the Midshipmen. Navy is 3-6 on the season but has played some close games. Coming off two statement wins and three straight victories overall, these are the keys to another Irish victory.

Stopping two more quarterbacks

Yes, Navy uses the triple option run, that much is true. The Irish will have to stop this unique style to see success this weekend. There’s an additional level of difficulty in answering the triple option this year, though, as Navy lost their starting quarterback Tai Lavatai two weeks ago to a knee injury.

Lavatai was replaced by Xavier Arline, who now shares the spotlight with Maasai Maynor. Because of Lavatai’s injury, this will be the third week in a row Notre Dame has the potential to see a quarterback they don’t know a lot about. Arline has been a part of the triple option scheme even before he took over as quarterback, so he should rely on that. The wild card will be Maynor. He can throw the ball when asked — he went three for five against Cincinnati for 81 yards. But he’s not as good in the triple-option structure. In that Cincinnati game, he ran the ball six times for negative nine yards.

The Midshipmen are still figuring out how best to move forward without Lavatai. It’s highly possible it will be a mixed bag in terms of who’s under center against the Irish. Regardless, Notre Dame needs to be ready for anything that’s coming their way. The Irish defense need to be ready for a surprise through the air from Maynor. Arline, meanwhile, can run the triple option seamlessly. Communication and clarity from the linebackers is vital. 

Tackle well, force a fumble

The triple option relies most heavily on Daba Fofana, Maquel Haywood and Anton Hall, Jr. The Irish will need to not only contain those three, but also take the ball back from them. Through the air, the Irish have taken the ball back; they’ve defended 17 passes and have racked up five interceptions. All of the latter figure have come in Notre Dame’s last five games. On the ground, though, they haven’t made as much of an impact. Notre Dame has only forced five and recovered two fumbles all season. This weekend, forcing and recovering them will play a large role in the outcome of the game.

Additionally, first touches on the ball carrier will be important. Fofana and Haywood cannot break any tackles. If the Irish want to win, they will have to limit carries and drive length tremendously. In order to do that, the first touch on a running back will need to take him down. Without that, the Irish will lose too much yardage too quickly.

Waste time, but turn it into points

Every Irish win this season has come on the backs of their running backs — sophomores Audric Estime and Logan Diggs and junior Chris Tyree. The run game has been instrumental to the Irish cause and has made a difference in several games throughout the season.

The Irish will need to continue their success on the ground Saturday. They will need to march downfield, six or seven yards at a time, and ensure they score a touchdown when they get to the red zone. Scoring quickly would put pressure on the Midshipmen to score quickly, something the triple option is not built for. Forcing the Midshipmen into this position will force them into the air and change their game, allowing the Irish defense to look for mistakes and take advantage of them. Additionally, if the Irish are ahead to start, the triple option’s benefit of wasting time no longer works in Navy’s favor.

Contact Mannion McGinley at mmcginl3@nd.edu.

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Sports

Zwiller: ZeLO’s CFP Rankings and Week 11 Picks

After a weekend of significant upsets (yes, I am counting No. 3 Georgia defeating No. 1 Tennessee as an “upset,” even though Georgia was a 10-point favorite), the playoff picture got much clearer.

Alabama, it would seem, is officially out of the playoff race as they no longer control the SEC West and are a two-loss team.

Clemson and Tennessee are now one-loss teams who do not control their destiny. Clemson needs to win out and clinch their conference to have a shot. Even then, they would likely still need help.

Tennessee is in a much more enviable position. While they are not likely to be conference champs, they should finish as a one-loss team whose only loss is to the No. 1 SEC Champions.

Meanwhile, TCU and Oregon now seemingly do control their destiny. By putting TCU fourth, the committee has said that as long as TCU emerges as an undefeated conference champ (not at all a tall task), they will make the playoff.

And though Oregon is a one-loss team, their loss comes against Georgia at the beginning of the season. Should they win the PAC-12 title, there is no reason the No. 6 Ducks should not leapfrog Tennessee.

So, this week, I want to pick games that should impact the following weekend’s CFP rankings.

But first, ZeLO and FPI went 39-21 (.650) last weekend. Because it was a somewhat crazy week, the much more conservative ZeLO won the Brier Point tiebreaker (316.24-313.09), so, very little difference between the two models.

Now, onto the picks!

No. 25 Washington @ No. 6 Oregon

By putting Oregon in 6th behind the one-loss Volunteers, the Committee has shown they value Tennessee’s loss to Georgia much more than Oregon’s one loss. However, by putting Oregon at No. 6, I think the committee suggests that a one-loss Pac-12 Oregon squad could and should make the CFP.

Oregon has a 60.8% chance of winning this week, so the team should continue its CFP run. I could see the Huskies offense giving the Ducks some fits, so this will be a good game.

No. 4 TCU @ No. 18 Texas

This is arguably the most challenging game remaining for TCU in a schedule that is already challenging. ZeLO currently ranks TCU’s remaining strength of schedule seventh. Texas, Baylor, and Iowa State are all legitimate threats to TCU’s CFP ambitions.

Though Texas is a seven-point favorite, ZeLO currently gives TCU a 63.1% chance of beating the Longhorns.

While I do think that TCU can win the Big 12, I do think this may be where their unbeaten streak ends. Texas at home is a tough challenge (ask the Tide). TCU’s habit of needing to comeback may catch up with them.

No. 22 UCF @ No. 17 Tulane

This might be the most crucial game I will talk about this week. Why?

UCF and Tulane are the strongest AAC teams and the likeliest to win their conference. Tulane is currently undefeated in conference play, while UCF is just a one-loss team.

If UCF wins, they should make their conference championship (the AAC takes the two highest teams for its championship game) as they boast a win over 7-2 Cincinnati. Tulane would then play what amounts to an elimination game against Cincinnati in their season finale.

If Tulane wins, they become a lock to make their conference championship, even if they lose to Cincinnati. Both scenarios are equally likely, with ZeLO giving the Green Wave just a 52.7% chance to win.

No. 9 Alabama @ No. 11 Ole Miss

In contrast to UCF and Tulane, this might be the least important game of the week. That feels weird to say. But in all likelihood, the two-loss Tide have already been eliminated from the CFP.

Ole Miss might have a chance to win the SEC West (and the glorious prize of being dismantled by Georgia on national television for 60 minutes). But it is a longshot, as LSU has a head-to-head advantage over the Rebels. Alabama should win this game, with ZeLO giving the Tide a 55% chance of victory. But Ole Miss could make this interesting, utilizing a high-powered offense and a home-field advantage to give Alabama trouble. Alabama is tied for most penalties per game in the country. Last week, Death Valley helped contribute to that stat, as the Tide took nine penalties for 92 yards.

Louisville @ No. 10 Clemson

Thanks in large part to Notre Dame, ZeLO majorly downgraded the Tigers. Though ZeLO still has Clemson as its favorite to win the Atlantic and the ACC, Clemson took a significant step back in ZeLO’s CFP rankings, falling to 14th.

As a result, Clemson has just a 51.7% chance to beat Louisville and keep its playoff hopes alive. A two-loss team has never made the CFP. And the Committee is not going to start with this iteration of Clemson.

Even if Clemson does defeat against Louisville, they feel like a stretch to make it to the CFP. But a solid bounce-back showing could be just what the Tigers need.

No. 15 North Carolina @ Wake Forest

At the start of the season, I wrote that I was skeptical of ZeLO0s faith in UNC. ZeLO has UNC as a divisional dark horse behind both Pitt and Miami. Pitt took a step back this season, and the entire college football world discovered that the U is not back.

So, UNC is looking to win ten games, the division, and maybe even the conference. Right now, the Tar Heels have an excellent chance to win 10 games and reach the conference championship against a weaker-than-normal Clemson.

However, ZeLO thinks Wake will dash Carolina’s hopes of making the CFP. These two teams are dead even on a neutral site, so the Wake home-field advantage is the difference maker here. It is slight, but Wake’s 55% chance to win might end Carolina’s CFP ambitions before Clemson does.

Look for Wake to take advantage of a porous Carolina defense that would struggle to stop a middle school flag football squad.

No. 20 Notre Dame @ Navy

By dominating Clemson in all three facets of their matchup, Notre Dame has launched itself back into the top 25 rankings. In all honesty, if ND wins and winds up 9-3, you can argue that the season was incredibly successful, despite the bumpy start.

ZeLO has the Irish going 2-1 down the stretch, and this game against Navy is a winnable one for Notre Dame (62.9%). Though it would not shock me if Notre Dame went 2-2 in its last four, losing to Navy and BC but beating Clemson and USC. Because why not?

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

Contact Tom Zwiller at tzwiller@nd-hcc.edu.

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Sports

Week 11 of College Football: Top 5 games

5. No. 15 North Carolina @ Wake Forest, 7:30 p.m., ESPN2, (Wake Forest -3.5)

North Carolina has run the table since their loss to Notre Dame, making the Irish win look all the better. The Tar Heels are currently 8-1 and are favorites to win the ACC Coastal division. The line favors Wake Forest, but the Tar Heels are 5-0 on the road this season. UNC quarterback Drake Maye has been lighting it up the entire season, passing for nearly 3,000 yards and 31 touchdowns compared to just three interceptions. The fact that he is putting up these gaudy numbers as a freshman should be extremely encouraging to Tar Heel fans. Maye is absolutely destroying defenses and could even garner some consideration for the Heisman. Wake Forest is coming off of two straight losses, which has seemingly eliminated them from conference contention. The only thing they have left to play is the role of spoiler; they could derail North Carolina’s hopes for a New Year’s Six Bowl. After a great start to the season, Demon Deacons quarterback Sam Hartman has thrown 3 interceptions in each of his last two games. North Carolina has a porous pass defense, so there will probably be holes in the coverage.

4. No. 22 UCF @ No. 16 Tulane, 3:30 p.m., ESPN2, (Tulane -2)

Tulane is the top-ranked team in the Group of Five, which puts them on track for a New Year’s Six game. The Green Wave are 8-1, with a signature win over a Kansas State team that is currently ranked 23rd. Their only loss was a letdown game to Southern Mississippi the week after their upset. Running back Tyjae Spears has been on a tear for the Green Wave, rushing for over 100 yards in each of his last three contests. On the other hand, UCF has a case for being the best team in the state of Florida. The Golden Knights are 7-2 and trail only the Green Wave in the conference standings. Head coach Gus Malzahn has engineered an offensively talented team; UCF has put up 40 points in four of their games this year. Two weeks ago, UCF won their biggest game of the season so far, beating Cincinnati 25-21. Backup Mikey Keene had to lead the Golden Knights to victory, and he also beat Memphis last week by a score of 35-28. 

3. No. 24 Washington @ No. 6 Oregon, 7:00 p.m., FOX, (Oregon -13.5)

The seminal PAC-12 game of the week is a pivotal rivalry contest. Washington needs a win to keep their hopes of a PAC-12 championship alive. The Huskies have shown flashes of an extremely talented team in the first year of the Kalen DeBoer era, but lack a true signature win. Last week, quarterback Michael Penix, Jr. led a game-winning drive to beat a ranked Oregon State team and the Huskies are largely dependent on the play of Penix. In their losses to UCLA and Arizona State, Penix has made crucial mistakes, throwing interceptions in each. The Huskies also have a suspect pass defense due to both injuries and inexperience. Oregon has inspired its fans into once again thinking about a potential playoff bid. Quarterback Bo Nix is having a lot more fun than he did in the season opener, as the Ducks have ripped off eight straight wins since a 49-3 demolition at the hands of Georgia. Nix has 22 touchdowns compared to just 5 interceptions. Last week, the Ducks destroyed a 1-8 Colorado team 49-10. If there is more chaos on the national scene, the Ducks could back their way back into the playoff. However, they have to win out. 

2. No. 10 Alabama vs. No. 11 Ole Miss, 3:30 p.m., CBS, (Alabama -11.5)

It’s a rare sight to see Ole Miss with the better record in the annual meeting between these two SEC teams. The Rebels are 8-1, but haven’t done it in a very convincing manner. Last week, they needed another monster performance from freshman running back Quinshon Judkins in order to beat a 3-5 Texas A&M. Judkins rushed for 205 yards in last week’s victory, a game he played on his 19th birthday. The Rebels needed a bounce back from their first loss two weeks ago, 45-20 to LSU in which they utterly collapsed after holding a 17-3 lead. The Tide are still sore from their own loss to LSU, a 32-31 overtime classic. After scoring a touchdown to start overtime, LSU responded with a touchdown of their own and scored on a two-point conversion to win the game. Alabama is 7-2, but has lost their games by a combined 4 points. Quarterback Bryce Young was routinely throwing under pressure last week, and an opportunistic Rebels defense needs to try and take advantage of any weakness they can find. Alabama was favored by nearly two touchdowns in their last game, but will the Rebels pull off another upset and send the Tide reeling?

1. No. 4 TCU @ No. 18 Texas, 7:30 p.m., ABC, (Texas -7)

TCU might just be the surprise of the season in college football. In head coach Sonny Dykes’ first season, the Horned Frogs have sprinted out to a 9-0 record (their best start to a season since 2010) highlighted by wins over Oklahoma State and Kansas State. Although they’ve won all their games, they haven’t looked unbeatable. They have faced double-digit deficits twice: down by 18 to Kansas State and by 17 against Oklahoma State. Quarterback Max Duggan has been the architect behind the Horned Frogs’ meteoric rise. Duggan has 24 touchdowns compared to just two interceptions this season. He also has a host of talented receivers to spread the ball around to — nine have a touchdown this year. Texas is coming off of a huge win over Kansas State that keeps them in the race for the Big 12. Star running back Bijan Robinson ran for 209 yards and a touchdown as Texas withheld a Kansas State comeback to win by a touchdown. The defense came through for the Longhorns against Kansas State, forcing a fumble to ice the game. The Longhorns will need a similar effort if they want to win against this high-flying TCU offense.

Contact Joseph Tunney at jtunney@nd.edu.

Categories
Sports

‘I pray for moments like this’: Morrison leads Irish defense in rout

Freshman corner back Benjamin Morrison stepped in front of the pass and was off to the races, sprinting 96 yards into the end zone and the national spotlight. 

“I was just running,” Morrison said of his fourth-quarter pick six, which changed the score to 28-0 in favor of the Irish and effectively sealed the 35-14 upset victory. “Once I hit the end zone, I knew I scored.”

Saturday night may have been the first time many college football fans had heard of him, but among those at Notre Dame, the freshman cornerback has been steadily building a name for himself since arriving on campus for fall camp. 

The former three-star recruit from Phoenix picked the Irish over the likes of Oregon and Washington and was not expected to play a significant role heading into the season. He did not enroll early, but after a strong fall camp and performing well in early season games, he was thrust into the starting lineup prior to the game against BYU, and he hasn’t looked back. 

In the season opener against Ohio State, Morrison earned the reputation of someone who won’t back down, briefly jawing with Buckeyes star running back TreVeyon Henderson before officials stepped in. 

“He’s an ultimate competitor that doesn’t get shaken,” head coach Marcus Freeman said. “It’s really uncommon for a freshman to be like that.”

His attitude might be an anomaly, but Morrison sets his own standard.

“I had high expectations for myself,” Morrison said prior to the loss against Stanford. “You don’t come to Notre Dame just to be average.”

Benjamin Morris celebrates his interception return for a touchdown with Isaiah Foskey during Notre Dame’s 35-14 victory over Clemson. Ryan Vigilante | The Observer

Morrison’s interception against Clemson was the apex of his best game of the season. On the previous drive, Morrison intercepted Clemson’s backup quarterback Cade Klubnik’s only pass of the game to put Notre Dame in great field position at the 14 yard line. It took them just three plays to punch it in and extend the lead to 21-0.

“I’ve been taught here, when you’re in that situation, always undercut everything,” he said of his first interception. “I knew if he threw it he would have to pay for it.”

Freeman praised Morrison’s ability to rebound quickly from mistakes.

“Just a mentally tough kid,” Freeman said. “Got a [pass interference] called against him and comes back and gets an interception; and got a ball caught on him and then comes back and gets a pick six.”

He finished the contest with seven total tackles in addition to two interceptions, and an impressive pass breakup on a third down to stop a promising Clemson drive in its tracks. 

“I know the player I can be and who God has called me to be,” Morrison said. “All week I knew what type of game this was and I knew they were going to test me off the previous games on what I’ve shown on film. I knew I had to lock in and hone in on what I wanted to accomplish.”

Morrison said he had been struggling with fade routes all season, before his stunning pick six.

“That was kind of cool because I’ve been struggling with that position all year long,” he said. “Back shoulder fade, just getting my eyes back. So today I was really just focused on the details. Once I had them in the position I wanted to, I could have just played to the man, but I trusted my abilities and put my head around there.”

His performance was all the more impressive given his somewhat rocky outing against Syracuse the previous week.

“I was tested a lot,” Morrison said of that game. “I knew I didn’t perform the level I wanted to perform at, so I knew what I wanted to accomplish.”

Morrison has “a special set of parents,” Freeman said.

His father, Darryl, played in the NFL for four seasons and later became a pastor that “helps him spiritually and mentally stay in the right mindset,” according to Freeman. 

He is the youngest of five siblings — all of whom are or were college athletes, competing in football, volleyball and gymnastics. Freeman described his mother, JoAnn, as an “incredible woman,” noting that Morrison’s play and attitude is “a reflection of his upbringing.” 

“I gotta give credit to my dad for putting me in the position I am today,” Morrison said after a practice prior to the Stanford game. “He’s really helped me as a young man, as a player.”

Morrison also noted that he calls his mother multiple times every day despite having to balance the rigorous schedule that being a student athlete at Notre Dame entails.

Clemson’s game plan seemed to be to test the young corner throughout the game Saturday, but he was more than ready for the challenge.

“I think the confidence came from the preparation, and once I was able to see things then I knew I was pretty locked in,” Morrison said. “Then once they started testing me and things started going my way, I just felt good so I just kept going.”

The rest of Notre Dame’s secondary was also outstanding Saturday night; they limited Clemson quarterback DJ Uiagalelei to less than 200 passing yards, two years after he set the record for most passing yards ever by an opposing quarterback at Notre Dame stadium with 439. 

Their job was made easier by a front seven that had Uiagalelei under near-constant pressure any time he attempted to drop back to pass. He was sacked four times, hurried four more and hardly had any time to get rid of the ball. 

“My team gets all the credit — the front is crazy. They allow all the pressure,” Morrison said. “You come to a school with a good D-line that forces some interceptions, which happened tonight.”

His emergence has been a revelation to a Notre Dame defense which many expected to struggle at cornerback this season. Alongside fellow freshman cornerback Jaden Mickey, who has also seen significant snaps this year and performed well, the position seems to be in good hands for years to come. 

“It means everything just because I pray for moments like this, dream of moments like this,” Morrison said. “For it to actually come into full circle is a cool feeling, awesome feeling.”

Categories
Sports

Crow: Notre Dame refuses to waver to turn season around

After Notre Dame’s massive upset victory over No. 4 Clemson, after Irish fans stormed the field and after he was met with raucous applause in the tunnels of Notre Dame Stadium, Irish head coach Marcus Freeman was asked a question that initially stumped him.

Why — after a season full of trials and tribulations, stunning losses and great wins — had Notre Dame just dominated one of the best teams in the country?

“You know what? I wish I could explain exactly how this season has gone. You can’t,” Freeman said. “We didn’t foresee this game going that way, this season going this way.”

Freeman, like many fans, probably did not predict an 0-2 start that included a defeat at the hands of Marshall, only the second Irish home loss since 2018. Or that the third would come five weeks later against Stanford, a team that this week lost 52-14 to Washington State. Three wins against top-25 opponents, including a convincing victory against a playoff-caliber team in Clemson, is more in line with what was expected for Notre Dame.

In hindsight, though, a season like the one that the Irish are having probably should have been expected all along. A first-year head coach, new quarterback and untested skill position players are not typically ingredients found in the recipe for national title contenders. Alabama went 7-6 in their first season under Nick Saban while Georgia finished 8-5 in Kirby Smart’s first year at the helm. Clemson, who has lost just 10 games in the last seven years combined, lost five in Dabo Swinney’s first full season.

Notre Dame was awash in good vibes and positive energy to start the season following an 11-2 finish in 2021, and the hiring of Freeman. That energy remained after a competitive loss against No. 2 Ohio State in Columbus, but disappeared in a flash following the Marshall game, a loss that saw sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner knocked out for the remainder of the season with a shoulder injury.

At that point, it would have been difficult to blame the team for shifting its focus to the future while grinding its way through a forgettable season just as Alabama, Georgia and Clemson each did in their first year under a new coach. Instead, Freeman made certain that the team would remain as locked-in as ever.

“You’ve got to believe in what you’re doing,” Freeman said. “So I make sure, when I walk out of my office, that I’m the most confident leader that I can be. They need that. They will go as their leader goes, and I have to do that.”

This approach of steadiness and staying the course was frustrating for Irish fans in the season’s early stages, as there was no moment when the switch flipped and Notre Dame began playing at the level that they were expected to. The 0-2 start was followed by a mostly uninspiring win against Cal in junior quarterback Drew Pyne’s first career start. Notre Dame played some of its best football over the next few weeks, crushing North Carolina on the road (which now looks very impressive) and beating BYU in Las Vegas (which now looks less impressive). The next weekend, though, it was back to square one, as the Irish were shut out in the first half on the way to a 16-14 home loss against a Stanford team that had not beaten an FBS opponent.

From that point on, Notre Dame has only improved, soundly beating UNLV before hammering No. 16 Syracuse on the road and now taking down the Tigers. Sophomore running back Logan Diggs, who ran for 114 yards against Clemson, said after the game that Freeman’s message of consistency made all the difference from where the Irish began the season to now.

“He’s that type of coach that’s going to come into the meeting and tell you what you need to do to get better,” Diggs said. “He’s going to keep on being the same Coach Freeman every single day of the week.”

That difference is striking — the result of steady improvement over the course of a long season. It started on the defensive end, where a unit that struggled with ceding big plays early in the year has now produced five straight excellent performances, with assistance from the special teams squad’s nation-leading six blocked punts. Offensively, Notre Dame rushed for a combined 206 yards in its two season-opening losses. The Irish have since surpassed that total in five of their last six games behind standout play from Diggs and sophomore Audric Estime, as well as a constantly-improving offensive line that Diggs referred to as “one of the best in the country” after they overwhelmed Clemson’s elite front seven.

Notre Dame’s passing attack remains an area for improvement, though Pyne has played well in several games after unexpectedly being thrust into action. Against Clemson, he was not asked to do much as the Irish leaned heavily on an effective run game. However, Pyne consistently made key plays at opportune moments through the air and on the ground in a performance reminiscent of former Irish star Ian Book, who was in attendance on Saturday. Freeman described Pyne as a “winner,” a word often used to describe Book, who won more games than any other quarterback in Notre Dame history.

All this being said, it feels like Notre Dame has figured out how to win games, and it starts up front on both sides of the ball. In Freeman’s eyes, though, keeping a consistent mindset is easier when the team is struggling and the need to improve is obvious. The Irish are now on a winning streak and have praise coming at them from every direction, and Freeman’s leadership is more important than ever.

“When you lose, it’s easy to look at yourself and say, ‘How can I get better, and what do I have to do as an individual and how can we tune out the outside noise and be intentional in our work?’” Freeman said. “The challenge will be when we have success to continue to have that mindset of improvement and selflessness and continuing to just stay together.”

The Irish, under Freeman, never wavered or lost confidence during the tough times, and there is no reason to believe that they will amid their current run of success. Notre Dame just earned the Freeman Era’s first signature win. Behind an even-keeled mentality and commitment to the process, regardless of on-field results, it is easy to imagine many more to come.

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

Contact Matthew at mcrow@nd.edu.

Categories
News

Clemson game ends in victory and injury, again

By Bella Laufenberg and Peter Breen

First-year Macy Gunnell entered Notre Dame Stadium this weekend feeding off the crowd’s energy and looking forward to a fantastic game. She left the field in an ambulance. 

The three-loss University of Notre Dame football team upset the No. 4 Clemson Tigers Saturday night, with a final score of 35-14. This primetime matchup was reminiscent of the 2020 Clemson-Notre Dame game when only socially-distanced students were allowed to watch in person. 

Before Saturday’s competition even began, the campus was electric, Gunnell said. Everyone was expecting to rush the field if Notre Dame could pull off the win, hoping to experience this once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon and not worrying about the consequences. 

Broken tibia ‘worth it’ for the win

“I’m definitely feeling the adrenaline of the game the entire day,” she said. “The whole game, I mean, it was perfect.”

Gunnell, a Saint Mary’s College nursing major, said the feeling in the stadium began to shift when the game was about three minutes away from finishing. This was when she and her friends began to move down section 35, the first-year student section behind the tuba marching band row, in preparation for what was to come. 

Before she reached the field, Gunnell said the crowd was overwhelmingly aggressive, pushing and shoving her into the ground. 

“People immediately started springing out from the stands, jumping onto the field, and as that happened, people just progressively started pushing more and more forward,” Gunnell explained. “Then next thing you know, there’s bodies on top of bodies, and I was unfortunately at the bottom of that pile.”

While she was trapped under the pile, Gunnell described the experience as “absolutely terrifying.”

“It was just a complete 180 switch from being excited to rush the field and the next thing you know, I’ve got 20 people on top of me,” she said. “It was scary, I was genuinely scared that I was going to get seriously hurt.”

Gunnell said, although she was grateful for making it out without more serious injuries, she did break her tibia during the commotion.  

“As soon as I was able to get out from under the pile, the realization of the pain of what just happened hit me. That’s when I knew that I needed to get someone’s attention and get myself out of there,” Gunnell recalled. 

She also expressed how thankful she was for the band members and friends that pulled her out and stayed with her for the 30-plus minutes it took for the medics to reach her. 

After being shuttled out of the stadium by EMTs and going to a nearby hospital in an ambulance, Gunnell said she was huddled in the emergency room waiting room for seven hours with around 10-12 other game day survivors, including some other students and older alumni. 

“Funny thing was, whenever I got to the ER, there were actually several students there in the waiting room with me from injuries from the game,” she said.

Gunnell said she spent the whole night in the waiting room, before leaving around 7 a.m. and deciding to try another hospital in the morning. Now, Gunnell said she has a cast, crutches and some good spirits. 

 “I don’t really think it’s any single person’s fault,” she said. “I think this is a good story. I’d say it’s worth it with the dub that we got.”

Trampled band stays in the stands

Junior trumpet player Megan Ebner watched the mayhem unfold from the stands.

“When you’re in the band, you represent the University,” Ebner said.

Band members had complied to band directors’ instructions not to rush the field during the 2020 Clemson upset and understood going into this year’s matchup against the Tigers, they would have to stay put in the event of a field rush.

“We all kind of knew it’s just a general rule that we can’t rush the field,” Ebner said. “[We] stayed in the stands, and it was crazy.”

As the fourth quarter wrapped up, Ebner and the rest of trumpets standing in the final row of the band’s stadium seating struggled to redirect rows of students streaming down the bleachers around the immobile pack of musicians.

“We told the people, ‘You have to go to the left on the right,’ and the ushers were trying their best, but the students really just wanted to get onto the field,” Ebner said. “We were telling them, ‘You can’t come through here. There’s no space. If you tumble down and hit a bass drum, we’re all going down [and] it’s going to hurt a lot, so you need to go around.’”

While students started pushing and piling up, the band could do nothing but attempt to maintain their footing.

“It’s not like the band was funneling onto the field. We just weren’t moving,” Ebner said. “It was definitely a bit scary with all the people and no one really being in control.”

Quarantined students rush to redemption

Roommates Andrew Koo and Eddie Walsh were excited to rush the field this time around, after receiving a phone call from the University’s COVID-19 response unit Monday morning of the week leading up to the Clemson game in 2020.

“I knew that I’d be shafted for the game. I was going to be screwed,” now-senior Koo said.

Koo’s roommate in Dillon Hall, Walsh, had been hauled off to The Foundry the day before following a positive COVID test.

“I had tested positive, and so obviously, that put me and Andrew in quarantine,” Walsh said. “Me for the next 10 days [and] Andrew for the next week — both out for the game.”

Koo was in denial, anticipating the game to be one of the biggest nights of his four years of college.

“I tried everything I could on the phone with the quarantine people,” Koo said. “I considered not even showing up to the Joyce Center to go.”

As Koo tried to rationalize the situation, he said he couldn’t help but feel hurt seeing the social media posts, knowing that he’d have to carry this missed opportunity in the back of his mind for the rest of his college career.

Walsh meanwhile, maintains that that night was the best day of a “pent-up” fall 2020 semester. 

“I’m standing on a balcony on Eddy Street screaming. Everyone in town is going wild,” he said.

Koo and Walsh were watching the game together in the student section this Saturday. With each Irish score, they grew more and more excited about a chance for field-rushing redemption.

“We were just looking at each other at each touchdown and then next, thinking, ‘Oh my God, we’re actually gonna be able to do this,’” Koo said.

Though the journey from high up in the stands was daunting, there was something freeing about throwing caution to the wind on the way to the field.

“At one point, my foot got caught under a bleacher and I was like, ‘Oh, this is it. I’m breaking an ankle,” Walsh said. “But luckily nothing bad happened. It seemed like everyone had a good time.”

Koo and Walsh never thought that after their sophomore year, they’d ever get a chance to rush the field again.

“Last night felt a lot sweeter, knowing the situation,” Koo said. “Especially since it was our senior year, and we were able to finally do that. It was a great feeling.”

Contact Bella Laufenberg at ilaufenb@nd.edu.

Contact Peter Breen at pbreen2@nd.edu.