Tyler Buchner took Notre Dame fans on one of the zaniest rollercoaster rides in memory on Friday while leading the Fighting Irish to a 45-38 victory over South Carolina in the Gator Bowl. The sophomore quarterback accounted for seven touchdowns – two rushing, three passing, and two pick-sixes by Gamecock defensive backs. In the end, however, Buchner’s short scoring toss to a wide open Mitchell Evans with 1:38 remaining was the difference.
Things did not look good for Notre Dame in the early going. Carolina took the opening kickoff and needed only three minutes to race to an easy score. Spenser Rattler cooly foiled an Irish blitz to hit Nate Adkins for a long gain before finding Xavier Legette with a 13-yard scoring strike. After a three and out by Notre Dame, the Gamecocks started to move the ball once again before the first of many momentum-changing plays occurred.
Rattler completed a pass to Ahmarean Brown, who promptly fumbled near midfield. Ramon Henderson recovered for the Irish and the offense finally got moving. An clutch third down completion to Evans set up a 15-yard keeper by Buchner to tie the game at seven.
Then things got really crazy.
Safety Xavier Watts broke up a third down pass at the goal line on Carolina’s next possession to force an apparent field goal attempt. Instead, the Gamecocks lined up in an odd formation with punter Kai Kroeger deep. Notre Dame appeared confused but failed to call timeout. Kroeger took advantage by firing a strike over the middle to a wide open Hunter Rogers for a 14-7 Carolina lead.
As the first quarter ticked down, Buchner tried to conjure an equalizer. Instead, a tipped pass was picked off by D.Q. Smith and returned 47 yards for a touchdown. The Irish trailed by 21-7 and were reeling as the Gamecock sideline and fans exploded. At that moment, I turned and gave the stink-eye to my granddaughter, who had picked Notre Dame to win. She didn’t say anything but I couldn’t help but notice that she had filled her diaper.
The Irish offense managed to collect itself as the second quarter got underway. They moved into scoring territory before a third down sack forced a Blake Grupe field goal attempt. Grupe connected to cut the margin to 21-10. Carolina responded in kind as kicker Mitch Jeter extended his season-long perfect streak with a 44-yarder to make it 24-10.
Buchner and Notre Dame needed to close the gap before halftime. It took only one play to scratch that itch. Logan Diggs took a short pass from Buchner in the right flat and raced 75 yards to paydirt. With five minutes remaining in the period, both teams had chances to add points but misfired. Rattler threw an interception to Ben Morrison to send the teams to the locker room.
The teams exchanged punts to open the third quarter before Audric Estime got rolling for the Irish. Buchner capped a 69-yard march with another rushing touchdown, this one from 11 yards. The Irish had fought back from a 14-point deficit to tie the game at 24 but the euphoria would not last long.
The Gamecocks wasted little time in retaking the lead. Rattler needed only five plays to score as Legette made a great catch in the end zone on a 42-yard bomb. Notre Dame could not immediately answer as Buchner threw another interception. He was scrambling on a third down play and tried to toss the ball to a receiver as he was hit. The ball ended up in Carolina’s hands at the Irish 41.
Rattler could not capitalize and the teams punted the ball to each other until the Irish gained an advantage in field position late in the period. Buchner executed a perfect play-action fake and led Braden Lenzy for a beautifully thrown 44-yard scoring strike. Once again, Notre Dame had battled back to tie the score.
The second of two sacks by Jordan Botelho ended Carolina’s next possession. Notre Dame took over but appeared to stall as well. On fourth down near midfield, the Irish executed a fake punt with Lenzy taking a shovel pass from Davis Sherwood and running down the sideline for 20 yards and a first down. Three plays later, Diggs broke through the line and streaked 39 yards for Notre Dame’s first lead of the night at 38-31. Just under thirteen minutes still remained, though.
The Gamecocks appeared to be tiring and the Irish defense began to do a better job defending Rattler’s quick passes that had burned them early in the game. After another short Carolina punt, Buchner and Estime led a punishing ground game that moved the ball to the Gamecock seven yard line. As Irish fans anticpated a game-clinching touchdown, Tom Rees shifted strategy and called a pass. The play fooled no one, especially Gamecock cornerback O’Donnell Fortune. He stepped into the throwing lane, grabbed Buchner’s pass and was off on a 100-yard jaunt. With 7:42 still on the clock, the score was tied again at 38.
Somehow, the resilient Irish recovered from the shock. Rees returned to the running game, and it paid off. Buchner drove them slowly but surely to the red zone as the clock became a factor. Facing a crucial third down and seven, Rees again called for a pass. Buchner looked to his three wide receivers on the right before turning back and finding Evans, who was all alone after releasing unnoticed across the middle. Evans grabbed the pass and walked across the goal line. Notre Dame now led by 45-38 with only 1:38 remaining in this marathon.
The Irish defense rose up to stop Rattler and the Gamecocks as Botelho and Justin Ademilola applied pressure. A final desperation heave fell to the turf and Notre Dame celebrated its victory.
Despite Buchner’s costly mistakes, he did enough good things to help his team win. The biggest difference was that Notre Dame was balanced on offense and Carolina was not. The Irish finished with 294 yards through the air and 264 on the ground. The Gamecocks gained 287 yards passing but only 65 rushing. Buchner was named the MVP of the game, although he would have been a strong candidate for Carolina’s MVP if they had won.
Heroes for Notre Dame included Lenzy, Diggs, Estime, Evans and Jaden Thomas on offense. Lenzy’s last game at Notre Dame was arguably his career best. The line blocked well for the run but allowed far too much pressure on the quarterback in pass protection. It was a very uneven performance in that respect and contributed to a few (but not all) errant throws by Buchner.
Defensively, Botelho played with maximum effort. The secondary recovered after a shaky start. Tariq Bracy had a forced fumble while safeties Watts and Ramon Henderson had a few good moments. In reviewing the 38 points by the Gamecocks, 14 came on defense and seven were scored on special teams.
Let’s review the answers to our pregame questions:
- Will Notre Dame be able to put any pressure on Rattler? Yes, especially as the game wore on. Rattler cooled off considerably after a hot start.
- Which team will run the ball most effectively? The Irish dominated and this ultimately tipped the scales in the second half.
- Can Ben Morrison and the Irish secondary blanket Antwane Wells? Wells had five catches for only 30 yards. Legette was productive though and Morrison grabbed an interception to hold up his end of the bargain.
- Which of these excellent special teams will tip the scales in their favor? Both units scored or set up a touchdown with fake kicks. The Irish pressured Kroeger into uncharacteristically short punts on two occasions.
- Will any of the tight ends on either team catch a pass? Nate Atkins caught five balls for Carolina and was a force early in the game. Evans caught a pair of passes for the Irish including the game-winner.
- Which team will have the fewest penalties and turnovers? Notre Dame had three turnovers to two for the Gamecocks. The Irish had only four penalties to eight for Carolina, including a couple of costly mistakes at the end of the game.
- Can Buchner shake off the rust and play at a higher level than before? There was definitely rust and more than a few moments of outrage among the fan base, but Buchner never stopped competing. He deserves a lot of credit for getting himself ready to play, taking several vicious hits, and coming away with a win.
- Will Notre Dame get its younger players on the field for meaningful snaps? Quite a few young guys played, but mostly on defense. It worked because that group did not fade in the fourth quarter while their Carolina counterparts clearly did.
A 9-4 end to the season looks much better than 8-5. The team is still a work in progress and has some holes to fill during the offseason. An impressive group of incoming freshmen will help but probably not immediately. The ups and downs of today’s game were certainly a microcosm of the entire 2022 season: early adversity followed by moments of jubilation, head-scratching meltdowns and an uplifting ending. It was not always pretty but this group showed more grit than most. I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted after watching them.