Irish Win a Wild One

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.

Tyler Buchner earned MVP honors despite a few costly mistakes

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.

47 thoughts on “Irish Win a Wild One

  1. Tommy Rees has reduced my life expectancy by at least five years! First an inexplicable call when ND could have iced the game. Then makes a brilliant call when no one thought he would be crazy enough to try it again. I’m with John, exhausted. Great Irish win!

  2. Way to fight Irish! Playing essentially a road game, up against adversity early and often, and never quit. There is no quit in this group or thier head coach. Proud of these players and coaches. 4 wins vs ranked teams this year. That’s 4 years worth in the Kelly era. Playoffs next year! Go Irish!

  3. Hey, I (Tommy Rees) have a great idea. We are running SC ragged (they are gassed) and we just got a first and goal on the 7 yard line (and we are trying to kill clock), Let’s throw a pass over the middle!

    • That call could have been fatal. Everybody and his dog saw that this was an idiotic play. If I am King of N.D., Rees would be looking for another job begiinning Jan 2, 2023. Unlikely though. N.D. has a hard time not being codependent.

    • vegaspoker74 says:

      In 2010, freshman QB Tommy Rees threw a game ending endzone INT resulting in a home loss to Tulsa. What comes around apparently keeps coming around (except we won this time).

  4. Okay, so he wasn’t perfect, but the kid was a battler today and I’m Proud of Buchner! He probably won’t start next year, but we will have a dependable backup if needed. The big negative of course, and it will be talked about ad nauseam, was the 100 yd. interception. Why, why, why throw when the defense is reeling. I’m almost 100% certain running plays….easy TD. Did Tommy Rees call that play? .. Anyway great win Irish, way to go into next season!

    • Ahead by a touchdown with 7 minutes to go and on the opponent’s seven yard line with a first down. Team has rushed for over two hundred yards in the second half. Should the first down play be a pass over the middle to a highly congested area? No. Run the ball, kick the field goal if necessary, go two scores up and win the game.

  5. AWESOME WIN!!!!! I’m so happy they won their bowl game!!! Despite the pick 6’s , Buchner played an incredible game since he has been out since September!! Really glad the running game took off in the 2nd half and the defense came on strong in the last 2 quarters. GREAT TEAM WIN!!!! Already looking forward to next season. Just wish did not have to wait 9 months. Happy New Year John!

  6. Yes, very dumb play call that led to 100 yard pick six. Good thing he redeemed himself (presumably Rees) on the final scoring drive.

  7. More twists, turns, ups and downs than Too Gun: Maverick. Didn’t exactly Cruise to victory. But better than a crash landing. Until next season … all the best, and a Happy, Healthy 2023.

    • I guess I see some things differently than some of the other posts
      This was a great dim agdindt a hot team with an erratic but dynamic QB. 4 wins over ranked team s was an impossibility with Kelly. Coming from behind in a big game NEVER happened with Kelly. We are far better off now although it may take a season or two to show it.
      In order to really move forward ND has to part ways with Rees. He is an idiot. For some to say he gets credit for figuring things out after the most stupid play call in history is absurd. Any casual fan knew we needed to run. He did t figure out anything that the world didn’t know. He has been horrible developing QBs and horrible all season with erratic mind numbing play calls. Once some other team makes the horrific mistake of hiring him away, we have a chance to excel with consistently hood offense

  8. Vannie, great write up after a great prediction. I respect your football knowledge and your objectivity. Here’s my question for you: While the collective Irish fan base is attacking Rees for his 1st and 10 call at the 7 yard line, there must have been some reason why he called a pass over the middle when any kind of a score could have iced the game and when the o.line was dominating and the backs were consistently advancing the ball. Three running plays would have also eaten up clock. So….what was reason for the call??? Oh one more question re. Rees: If you take away the 100 yard pick six, how would you evaluate Rees’ performance as O.C.? In fairness to him he was put in the difficult position of thrusting a very rusty quarterback into the fray without the help of ND’s best player? With each play Buchner got better and better.

    • On the 100-yard pick-six, I believe Rees called a play he was certain would work based on the defense he expected to see. The Carolina secondary did not cooperate. They shifted into a different look and Buchner was not savvy enough to read it post-snap. He threw the ball exactly where it was designed to go, but I’m sure Rees would tell you Buchner had the option to throw it to the outside if the coverage dictated. A more experienced QB would probably have read the play properly.

      You can blame Buchner but it’s also on Rees to call plays that are within the capability of his personnel. Tommy is smart and gets caught up in being too cute at times. I understand he’s trying to develop competency in his quarterbacks and push them to be better, but there are game situations and wins/loss consequences to consider. That’s where Freeman can provide veto power over a play call. He is somewhat reluctant to do that but it happened more later in the season than in the early going.

      All that said, Rees redeemed himself on the next series by correctly anticipating Carolina’s defensive look. The game-winning pass to Evans made him look like a genius. As for his overall performance evaluation, I’d give him a B because he’s still learning on the job. I think he tries to give the impression that he knows more than he does. ND offered to add an offensive assistant/analyst to the staff last spring to help Rees coach the QBs and design the offense. Rees refused to accept that help, which struck me as a bit arrogant. He has good command of the X’s and O’s but working with young QBs and applying those principles in live game situations takes time to master. He will get better.

      • Thanks, Vannie. In the midst of all the uproar you can always be counted on to give an insightful analysis, which is much needed and much appreciated. It seems to me that the Irish …quarterbacks, head coach and O coordinator were all on a pretty steep learning curve this year. It will be interesting to see how much the three parties have grown next season. Thanks again, Vannie, for the best analysis of the Fighting Irish online. There are a multiplicity of Irish websites, but your commentaries are significantly more insightful than any others available on the web. Happy New Year and again…thanks for your efforts to shed light on a team that we can get very emotional over.

    • Irish in the South says:

      Will Buchner stay if the Irish pick up the Wake Forest QB in the portal? I read where this is very likely to happen and make the QB room crowded.

  9. Maybe old news, but does anyone else feel that the timing of Pyne’s transfer portal was a huge #%$@ you ND!?!? Tampering my ASU? A QB of his size and skills does not get grabbed that swim after a season of inaccuracy and missed opportunities deep. Just wondering?

    • I think it was more of a case where other QB’s were “getting their spots” at various schools and Pyne wanted to have a choice rather than end up somewhere he didn’t want to be.

    • Nah, I think he was smart., it wasn’t personal. If you’re gonna go, go early and give yourself more options/opportunity. Let’s the school you’re leaving fill holes as well.

  10. #♥️☘️50 says:

    Definitely this season was a roller coaster ride. I hope and expect Marcus this off season going into next year will clean some coaching miscues. I’m confident that his recruiting will continue to keep getting ND 4 and now 5 Star players. We will need to dip into the transfer portal to lock down key positions we need to excel for next season. Off to a good start at the QB position. As far as NIL, ND is going to have to continue to play along. In all of these areas mentioned I expect ND to LEAD, not follow! With that being said, the foundation was set and ND needs to build towards a National Championship….. 34 years and counting. Oh one last thing, with the Playoffs moving to 12, there is NO REASON to join a conference! ESPECIALLY NO BIG TEN EVER!!!!!! ☘️🏈💪

    • I agree, I always look forward to Jvan’s insightful commentary. I’m just wondering, did Jvan buy his granddaughter
      some ice cream after the victory?

  11. Excellent recap as always John! However, these four words encapsulate just about everything: ” Tom Rees shifted strategy.” Perfect. Just perfect.

    Thanks and Happy New Year.

  12. Tyler Buchner almost threw as many touchdown passes to S. Carolina as he did to his own team! If there was a pick six Heisman trophy award Buchner would probably be the unanimous winner. Kidding aside and outside of the two pick sixes Buchner did play pretty well considering he’s been idle almost all season.

    ND’s defense had a shaky start but settled down in the second half.

    As usual it was a roller coaster ride but at least they finally won a major bowl. Now that we got to see Buchner’s potential I hope he doesn’t also transfer if ND signs Sam Hartman.

      • Irish in the South says:

        Announcers did not give us info on Morrison’s injury. But I think the next long, controversial pass TD by USC ( the “white chalk” play) was at the corner that Morrison would have been covering. Did anyone else see it that way??

        • Yes, you are correct.

          I still haven’t heard anything definitive on Morrison’s injury. The lack of coverage leads me to believe it was not serious.

  13. I wish everyone, especially you John, a Happy New Year. I really appreciate all the work you do and especially your insightful analysis each game.

    That being said, I think that the Irish still have a way to go to become a top tier team under Freeman, as other said, still a lot of quality gaps to fill. I think Buchner is a good wildcat option and a lesser version of Ian Book, but not the answer at QB.

    The future of college football is not looking pretty as NIL and the transfer portal make it more and more a semipro league with the top tier teams extending their gap over the rest of the pack.

  14. I will try to forget that Buchner has thrown 5 INTs in his last 2 games…including 3 Pick 6’s in 5 quarters of football. Unfortunately he was not able to overcome that one against Marshall. Ouch! But hats off to Buchner for battling back and winning the game…he showed some real grit. Well done young man! And ND defense really settled in, giving up only a field goal and one TD after the going down 7-love. This was one of those rare games where offense (running game) and defense really seem to get better as the game wore on. Coaching staff and players alike deserve praise for staying cool and keeping their heads in the game. This did not happen much under previous regime.

    As for the opt-out players, both teams were obviously impacted but absences of these individuals did not make game any less exciting or hard-fought. I find this trend among elite players in non-playoff bowl games unfortunate. And I for one do not care to see these players interviewed on sideline during game…except perhaps if the sideline reporter would have asked the two ND opt-outs whether Alabama star players’ decision to play their bowl game indicates a stronger TEAM-first culture at Alabama! Oh well, sorry for being grouchy. I’m elated with the great TEAM win!

    • It is now a “disease” this opting out of playing in fear of injury. When this trend surfaced some years back, the opting out players would be criticized…”you should support the team you played with all season long..” Now the media applauds their decision to sit out. I personally can see both sides of this issue. God forbid the player got a serious injury and ruined his draft chances. It is surely making these “non championship series” bowl game pretty much irrelevant. But….other than that ill advised TD pass I enjoyed the hell out of watching the victory!

  15. Despite the ups and downs, this, for me, has been the most enjoyable year of watching ND football since the Holtz era. Great game, great spirit, great school. Maybe we won’t win it all every year, but we put out a product that still considers the players “student athletes”. Thanks Vannie for enhancing the experience. Go Irish! Happy New Year to all!

  16. What a fun game! These bowl games are primarily worthless to college football, but they are invaluable when gauging the trajectory of the program. These are my dopey year-end comments:

    1. We saw some real toughness today. Despite some of our best players being off for NFL land, the team showed grit and determination. Admittedly, I was hoarse from yelling at the big screen for some absolute ineptitude with play calling and QB performance, but this team hung tough!
    2. Looking forward to the team grabbing some decent QB talent from the transfer portal. As I have said from the beginning, Buchner is NOT your guy. He missed a lot of easy throws, threw 3 interceptions (although not entirely his fault) and missed reads routinely. He tries his best and indeed is a fine young man, but is not the caliber of individual to take you anywhere near a Natty. He is solid runner with flashes of brilliance. He would likely shine at Montana State.
    3. Running game was as solid as observed this year. Estime was a horse, Tyree was used effectively, and Diggs had the play of his life with the 75 yarder. This is a pattern we hope will continue.
    4. The receivers came of age today. Braden Lenzy hit that big post pattern, Evans said hello to America after a year of silence, and Jayden Thomas had a number of impressive catch and runs. Hopefully a harbinger of the future.
    5. The defense came up big when needed. Al Golden made the appropriate adjustments at halftime and pressured Rattler throughout the contest.
    6. This was a great win for Marcus Freeman and sets the stage for an optimistic off season. Despite a record well below Irish standards, he seems to be growing into his role and will hopefully meet with expectations for a successful sophomore campaign.

    Happy New Year JV. Congratulations on an astute season of insightful analysis.

    • No, I don’t believe so. There is competition everywhere but Hartman won’t find a more favorable situation among the schools that want him. If Hartman comes, the coaches will want him to learn the offense. That means he will take snaps away from Buchner this spring and further delay Buchner’s development. As we’ve seen, he is far from a finished product. When fall camp starts, the overall experience gap will be too large between the two for Hartman to sit.

  17. One of the better wins for the Irish in Bowl Games. Thanks John for tremendous insight and honest recaps this season. I was at the game and sitting behind ND bench . Coach Harry H. challenged his offensive line and they responded. In particular he took Joe Alt to a one on one conversation and got his attention ! Big difference in the game when ND could run the ball. Have to give Coach Freeman credit after the 100 yard pick six he was very animated and positive telling the team to let it go – we can do this. Players responded. This season was a learning experience for the Head Coach – he made strides in a positive way. You can recruit the top players but you better be able to teach them and that will be something to see going forward. ND be ready to compete every week next season. Gave winnable games away this past season. Irish in 2023 need to run the table.

  18. I’ve been tough on Buchner and everyone can see why after this game., he is the classic guy who is good enough and bad enough to keep both teams in the game. If he can reduce his propensity to throw to the wrong team he can be a very good QB , natty quality?? I don’t think so. Bothello can play and will be a beast next year. Sneed and Kollie must play,, even if if Bertrand and Kiser come back! One last thought, Braden Lenzy is s true ND man, just a great young man, check out his interview on twitter regarding frustration over his career at ND, the guy is pure class!