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Sports

Creating tiers of ACC women’s soccer

Through seven games of non-conference play, it would be difficult to call Notre Dame women’s soccer’s season anything but a roaring success. The team has notched a perfect 7-0-0 record, with every win coming by a multiple goal margin. The defense has allowed just three goals across 630 minutes of play. And with ACC play on the horizon, the Irish have risen to 6th in the Coaches Poll — their highest ranking in years.

But ACC play should provide the Irish with some of their hardest tests yet. As always, the ACC is tremendously deep, with a host of teams in contention for both the conference crown and the NCAA tournament. Here’s a look at where the best teams stand in the country’s strongest soccer conference.

TIER ONE: Title favorites, College Cup contenders

The teams: UNC, Virginia, Duke and Notre Dame

This group is led by North Carolina, who have looked near-unstoppable at times. Their handling of a pair of quality teams in Tennessee and Texas in the first weeks of the season were reminiscent of prior Tar Heel teams that would hardly look threatened until the College Cup. UNC came back down to earth with a loss to UCLA, but rebounded as well as one could have asked with a 3-0 dispatching of local rival, and fellow College Cup contender, Duke.

Virginia hasn’t played as intensive of a non-conference slate as UNC, but the Cavaliers passed their biggest test with a 1-0 win on the road against Georgetown. A home draw against Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) ended what had been a perfect run to start the season, but a trip to Chapel Hill this weekend could allow Virginia to respond with a major statement.

Duke has been the most inconsistent of any of the top tier. A furious comeback against Tennessee and an impressive road thumping of TCU give the Blue Devils a pair of ranked wins. But, in their most recent outing, they were outclassed in front of a home crowd against North Carolina. Led by one of the country’s best strikers in Michelle Cooper, the Blue Devils have the pieces. But, they’ll need to regain momentum after a big rivalry loss.

Rounding out the top tier is, perhaps, the most surprising addition: Notre Dame. There was a lot of hope for an experienced Irish team that has eight upperclassmen starters. But, I don’t think anyone expected Notre Dame to open the season a perfect 7-0-0 with dominant wins over ranked St. Louis and Wisconsin teams, and a total goal difference of +18 through seven games. If the Irish maintain their pace in conference play, they’ll be on a very short list of national title contenders.

TIER TWO: Title dark horses, NCAA tournament threats

The teams: Florida State, Clemson and Wake Forest

Florida State has been perhaps the most fascinating team in the ACC over the offseason and regular season. The 2021 national champions entered the season largely unknown, playing with a new coach and a largely changed roster, nobody was sure where the Seminoles floor and ceiling would be. Through six games, the question of floor has been answered. Florida State dispatched four of their weaker non-conference games with relative ease. But, the ceiling of the Seminoles is harder to determine. In their two games against ranked teams, Florida State has produced a solid but uninspiring two draws. Oct. 6 will likely be the first day anyone can make a serious guess as to the Seminoles’ odds of a College Cup comeback as this is when they start an absolutely brutal four game stretch against Virginia, Notre Dame, Duke and North Carolina.

Clemson is another strange read in trying to sort out the rest of the pack behind the obvious standouts from the first half of the season. Much like Florida State, the Tigers have handled their weaker non-conference games without issue. However, they hold an unimpressive 0-1-2 record against likely tournament teams. A visit from Notre Dame on Thursday should say a lot about the Tigers’ chances of putting together a dark horse ACC title charge.

Rounding out the second tier is a seemingly always underrated Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons have been far from flashy this season, winning just three of their eight games by more than one goal, but they’ve also been effective. They’re yet to lose, and have a credible draw against a very good Auburn team in their one test against ranked opposition. The Deacons surprised a lot of teams last year in an underdog run to the ACC semi-finals. So far this year they’ve shown a lot of promise that they could make a similar run. 

TIER THREE: Possible NCAA tournament teams, but unlikely ACC contenders

The teams: North Carolina State, Pitt and Virginia Tech

North Carolina State has been another tough team to get a bead on over the first half of the season. They’re 1-1-2 in the month of September (as opposed to 3-0-1 in August), with a confusing pair of ties with both nationally ranked South Carolina as well as lowly unranked Nebraska. They don’t have a statement win on their resume yet, and will have as much of an incentive as anyone to bring their best in conference play to get into the tournament field.

Pitt looked like a potential tier 2 team for much of non-conference play, though a loss to VCU brought the Panthers back down to Earth. But with senior forward partnership Amanda West and Leah Pais combining for 28 points in just eight games, it would be unwise to count out Pitt as a serious threat in the ACC.

Finishing this final tier is Virginia Tech. After surviving a brutal opening day scare against William and Mary, the Hokies have straightened out and worked their way to a solid 6-1-1 record. Much like the other teams in this tier, however, their lack of a statement win means they have work to do in ACC play.

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Sports

What we saw in week 1 of college football

After a far-too-long offseason (and a smattering of Week 0 matchups), college football is back, and with its triumphant return came everything we have come to know and love about the sport. A wild opening weekend featured upsets, dominating performances, nail-biting finishes, and several teams finding bizarre ways to win. Here are five of the most notable happenings from Week 1.

Florida kicks off new era with an upset win

After last season produced their first ever Pac-12 championship and Rose Bowl appearance, No. 7 Utah entered the fall as a trendy playoff pick among fans and media alike. While a playoff berth is not yet completely out of the question, it is certainly far less likely after the Utes were defeated 29-26 by Florida in Gainesville. The Gators trailed late in the fourth quarter, but “The Swamp,” known nationally as one of the most difficult stadiums for visiting teams to win in, worked its magic.

With under two minutes to play, star dual-threat quarterback Anthony Richardson ran for a go-ahead touchdown, his third of the day. And while the Utes nearly responded, Florida’s Amari Burney picked off a Utah pass in the endzone to seal the win. Saturday’s game was the debut for new Florida head coach Billy Napier, who made the jump to the SEC after four highly successful seasons at Louisiana.

Though it is too soon to know how his tenure will play out, it could not have gotten off to a better start than with a clutch victory against a top-10 opponent. Especially after the Gators finished 2021 with a 6-7 record that included several tight losses caused by late-game miscues. It appears doubtful that anyone will challenge Georgia in the SEC East this year. But Florida is already showing signs of a program that is back on the rise.

Wild finish in App State-North Carolina

On Saturday afternoon, North Carolina headed to the mountains to face Appalachian State in a much-anticipated in-state matchup. The Mountaineers came out of the gates swinging, taking an early 21-7 lead. But a dominant second and third quarter stretch gave North Carolina a seemingly insurmountable 20-point advantage entering the fourth.

Then came one of the highest scoring quarters ever in college football, as the teams combined for 62 points in a chaotic final period. With under a minute left, an App State touchdown cut the Tar Heel lead to 56-55. But a gamble to go for two and the win did not pay off, as an incomplete pass on the conversion try appeared to seal a UNC victory. That is, until the Tar Heels not only recovered the onside kick but returned it for a touchdown. That extended their lead to eight but inadvertently gave App State another chance to score in what was still a one-possession game. Albeit one with only 28 seconds remaining.

Turns out, that was plenty of time for the Mountaineers, as they continued to torch a North Carolina defense that struggled all day, needing only two plays to score yet another touchdown. It was only after another two-point conversion stop and onside kick recovery that the Tar Heels could breathe a sigh of relief after winning a game in which they surrendered 40 points in the fourth quarter alone.

Iowa’s improbable victory

Iowa 7, South Dakota State 3. At first glance, that sounds like it could be a baseball score. But even knowing that it came from a football game, it still does not seem like a hugely surprising result. Iowa’s offense has been much-maligned in recent years. And while it is strange to see a team win while scoring just a single touchdown, it is certainly plausible.

But that is not what happened, as the Hawkeyes eked out a victory over an FCS opponent in one of the strangest ways possible. After a first half slugfest that saw the score tied at 3-3, Iowa punter Tory Taylor dropped in a perfect punt that pinned the Jackrabbits at their own one-yard line. Sure enough, a safety resulted on the ensuing play. In the fourth quarter, Taylor placed another punt inside the South Dakota State 10-yard line. Two plays later, the Hawkeyes’ Joe Evans recorded a sack in the endzone for the second Iowa safety of the game.

Somehow, that pair of safeties was all they needed to secure an unlikely season-opening win. In a truly herculean feat, the Iowa defense held the Jackrabbits scoreless in the second half in addition to scoring the four game-winning points. Iowa has experienced great success in recent years behind an elite defense and mediocre offensive play. But they most likely cannot count on winning many more games in which their defense outscores the offense.

Kicking struggles prove costly

It is not uncommon to see college football games decided, at least partially, by missed kicks. Kickers have one of the most difficult and pressure-packed roles in the sport, and most teams do not have an NFL-caliber player at the position, leading to a fair number of misses in high-leverage situations. What is surprising is for these crucial mistakes to occur on extra points rather than field goals, and we saw two instances of this over the weekend.

Hosting rival No. 13 NC State, East Carolina had a chance to pick up an upset win when, trailing 21-14, they scored a late fourth-quarter touchdown that would have tied the game if not for a shocking miss on the PAT. The Pirates forced a quick three and out and drove down the field in the final seconds only to miss another kick. This one was a potential game-winning field goal, sending the Wolfpack home as fortunate victors.

Florida State and LSU faced off on Sunday night in a showcase game that served as new LSU head coach Brian Kelly’s debut with the Tigers after leaving Notre Dame. The LSU offense was stagnant for much of the game but capped off a masterful 99-yard drive with a miraculous touchdown pass as time expired to make the score 24-23 in the Seminoles’ favor. The Tigers opted to kick rather than going for two. And sure enough, Florida State blocked the extra point to win the game. Special teams make special teams, folks.

Georgia and Alabama are in a class of their own

Last year, Georgia and Alabama met in the national championship game, with Georgia claiming their first title since 1980 in a 33-18 win. After the impressive displays that both teams put on this weekend, it would come as no surprise to see a rematch in this year’s playoff. Georgia kicked off their quest to repeat with a huge statement win, traveling to Eugene to face No. 11 Oregon and returning with a 49-3 win under their belt in a game that was somehow even less competitive than the score would indicate. The Bulldogs’ roster was decimated by this year’s NFL Draft. But their consistently elite recruiting classes have allowed them to retool and come back just as strong.

Meanwhile, Alabama began their revenge tour with a casual 55-0 steamrolling of Utah State. Head coach Nick Saban recently referred to the Crimson Tide’s last season as a “rebuilding year.” And despite finishing as SEC champions and national runners-up, that claim may not have been as outlandish as it seemed. The Tide return Heisman winner Bryce Young, potential No. 1 overall draft pick Will Anderson, and a host of other stars eager to make up for their championship-game loss. Nearly all of the season is still ahead. But Georgia and Alabama both look ready to fight for another title.

Matthew Crow

Contact Matthew at mcrow@nd.edu

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Sports

Tunney: The Brian Kelly experience

On Sunday night, at about 11:15 PM, Brian Kelly held up a single finger. It proved to be a decision he may come to regret. Quarterback Jayden Daniels had just led the LSU Tigers on a miraculous 99-yard drive with just 80 seconds left in the game, culminating in what appeared to be the game-tying touchdown as time expired.

It had been a tough game for the Tigers. But they now stood an extra point away from taking a shell-shocked Florida State Seminoles team into overtime. Then, special teams reared their ugly head. A Florida State player burst through a hole in the left side of the line and blocked the extra point try, sending it careening off the bottom crossbar. Game over. Seminoles win.

A blocked extra point in itself is indicative of a terrible game for a special teams unit. But this was not the first mistake that the unit had made in the course of the game. Returner Malik Nabers fumbled two punts, twice setting the Seminoles up with amazing field position. Fortunately for LSU, the defense stiffened. On the first possession, the Tigers forced a turnover on down. On the second, they recovered a poorly executed pitch to kickstart the 99-yard drive.

However, the Tigers also could have won the game had they not let a previous field goal attempt also get blocked by Florida State. Kelly said a “switch in personnel” was made after the first block. But the issue was not corrected. If you compare the two blocked kicks, they look remarkably similar. Both tries resulted in the left side of the line caving in, allowing a defender to step in and get a hand on the football.

To add further insult, Florida State’s special teams unit was ranked 106th in the country last season. To put it simply, it could not have gone worse in the kicking game for special teams coordinator Brian Polian, who has seemed to be Kelly’s right-hand man. When Kelly left South Bend for the Bayou, Polin was the only assistant coach who followed.

For Irish fans, Kelly’s loss on Sunday had many familiar overtures. Special team woes seemed to strike the Irish at unfortunate times throughout Kelly’s tenure. One only has to look back to 2016 to see multiple similarities. In what Irish fans now call the hurricane game, Notre Dame lost 10-3 to NC State. The culprits? A blocked punt and (predictably) bad snaps. Or you could go back to Kelly’s first season in 2010. A blocked extra point returned for two points and punt return TD helped to doom the Irish against a markedly inferior Tulsa team.

Apparently, bad snaps also followed Kelly down to Baton Rouge. On LSU’s first possession they looked destined for the end zone until a bad snap at the Seminoles’ five-yard line eventually led to a field goal. LSU’s slow start versus the Seminoles allowed them to amass a 17-3 lead. Again, for Irish fans, it seemed eerily similar. Just look back to 2020, when the Irish amassed a total of seven yards in a win against Duke in the first quarter.

What was not similar (and even worse for LSU) was offensive line play. Throughout Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame, the Irish prided themselves on quality offensive line play. Just look at the NFL, it’s littered with Notre Dame linemen. For the Tigers last night, their offensive line got handled at the line of scrimmage. LSU was able to run for 139 yards last night. But the vast majority of the yards were on scrambles from Daniels after the line had broken. Having your quarterback lodge 16 rushes a game is not going to be a healthy proposition.

Furthermore, the decision to go for the extra point requires close scrutiny. Perhaps Kelly had bad memories of the Irish playing Northwestern in 2014. Kelly decided to go for two up 11, a call that failed and eventually led to Northwestern winning in overtime. Could that have been the reason why he took the ball out of the hands of the player who had willed his team to that point? One can only speculate.

The old saying goes that a leopard can’t change its spots. Maybe that’s true for tigers, too. Welcome to the Brian Kelly Experience, LSU.

Joseph Tunney

Contact Joseph at jtunney@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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Viewpoint

Notre Dame vs. Ohio State: The wolf rushes into the lion’s jaws

Robb Stark and Tywin Lannister. Daniel in the Lion’s Den. The movie “300.” Rocky Balboa in Russia. Notre Dame football opening the 2022 season at The Shoe. All of these situations are synonymous with underdogs involved in the fight of a lifetime, and if the betting public has anything to say about it, The Fighting are a MASSIVE underdog this weekend. I love Marcus Freeman and his nonchalant attitude towards the -17.5 point line the Irish have been placed at, but nevertheless, Notre Dame will go into this as the largest underdog I think they’ve been placed in the last 20 years. 

But I am not here to talk about the state of Notre Dame Football, or even dabble to make a prediction about the outcome of the game or season. Ever since my 13-year-old self-predicted a 23-21 Irish victory on January 7, 2013, I don’t dare partake in such activities. On the contrary, I would love to speak to the fantastic time that visiting Notre Dame students will have this weekend if they have chosen to attend tomorrow’s game. Easily the most daunting early season matchup in recent memory, the threat of the outcome has not dissuaded undergrads and alumni alike from booking plans to drive into Columbus this weekend. And I applaud them. Because yes, regardless of your outcome in the student ticket lottery, and regardless of the score at the end of the contest, if you are traveling to the game, you are bound for the time of your life. 

Personally, I have had a euphoric experience as an Irish fan in a visiting stadium. The high, lows and adrenaline delivered by traveling and game-winning fields can almost rival game day at Notre Dame. Of course, I am spoiled that this game happened to be played in Tallahassee as we took on Florida State last year during Labor Day weekend, but I almost didn’t attend. Emphasis on almost. An invite to Tallahassee was extended to me early last August when I was told that a group of friends were planning to make a weekend out of the trip. They invited me and others to do the same. Skeptical at first, I cataloged almost every excuse in the book to avoid further conversations about attending. “The job search”, “homework”, “Who will walk my dog?” (I’ve never had a dog), “All my money is tied up in long term municipal bonds” were all excuses involved in my fight against the inevitable. But deep down, I really wanted to go. And finally, after a push from my mom, my bests friend and I decided to go over Spicy Siracha Caesar Salads at Bru Burger. Florida State vs. Notre Dame was on. 

We immediately booked $120 round trip flights (yes, the good old days), and flew out of O’Hare in the middle of the night to make it to Atlanta. From Atlanta we rented a car to make it Florida’s capital by Saturday afternoon. After Popeyes and Sunday mass at the Florida State Union, a truly incredible weekend was underway. The game itself was one of the best of 2021, and it prompted me to cry twice, once during the “Amazing Grace” tribute to Bobby Bowden and once again when the Seminoles tied the game at 38 all. Long exciting touchdowns by Michael Mayer were matched on the defensive side of the ball with the most impressive interception of the season by Kyle Hamilton. The game was a nail-biter through and through, and just when I thought it was over, the Irish won it on a game-winning field goal. And while the rest of the world listened to Brian Kelly comment on executing his players on national television (they’re just kids Brian!!), the Tomahawk chop continued to play on over and over in my head. But an Irish victory was reason for a fitting celebration, and I’ve got to tell you, our group of weary travelers from South Bend, now confidently self-dubbed the “Seminole Seven,” took every bit of deliberate enjoyment leaving the premises of Doak Campbell Stadium. 

So a piece of advice to students traveling to Columbus, Ohio this weekend. Be safe, be smart and win or lose, the 46556 will welcome you back Monday morning as the conquering heroes you are. And to Tim, Jack, Micah, Camden, Peter and Ryan. 

Go Irish and Long Live the Seminole Seven!

Stephen Viz

Stephen is a One Year MBA candidate and graduate of Holy Cross College. Hailing from Orland Park, Illinois, his columns are all trains of thoughts, and he can be found at either Decio Cafe or at Mendoza. He can reached at sviz@nd.edu or on Twitter at @StephenViz