InsideNDSports – Irish Gator Bowl rally keeps the notion of a higher program ceiling in play – Irish Illustrated

For the seniors who stayed when Brian Kelly bolted, for those who believed when Marcus Freeman looked over his head, for those who opted in because their collective legacy felt priceless, Friday’s TaxSlayer Gator Bowl smacked of vindication.
And, to be honest, big-picture questions as well.
The latter can wait for the celebration to fade on a wacky and weird 45-38 subduing of 19th-ranked South Carolina by Freeman’s 21st-ranked Notre Dame team at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, Fla.
But eventually every clash with a ranked team, every recruiting breakthrough and stinging setback, every NIL wrinkle and rumor ties into the powerful perception of whether an Irish program with nine or more victories six years running can and will eventually close the gap on the College Football Playoff’s bullies.
Or whether the recent seismic changes forced on college football in large part by outgoing NCAA president Mark Emmert’s inertia at critical junctures will lead to ND’s epitaph as one of college football’s true bluebloods.
Even with a smattering of opt-outs and injuries for both teams, Friday’s Irish rally from 14 points down, in a stadium where Notre Dame had gone 0-3 previously and looked bad doing it (the last appearance was a 2016 regular-season loss to Navy), was more than a subtle nudge toward a higher ceiling being possible for this program.
And smack in the middle of that supposition sits the 2022 Gator Bowl MVP, sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner, AND the 2021 Gator Bowl MVP, Wake Forest QB Sam Hartman. The latter is shopping for a new home for his sixth and final collegiate season, with his destination ever-increasingly trending toward Notre Dame.
The premise Freeman now fully embraces seemed to be lost on Kelly during his 12 significant program-building seasons with the Irish. That is that for Notre Dame to do more than merely reach the playoff — but specifically to win games on college football’s biggest stage — it can’t do it without being elite at the quarterback position.
Whether that, moving forward, is Buchner or Hartman in 2023, or, further down the road, Kenny Minchey or CJ Carr.
Buchner played in his first game Friday since a Sept. 10 shoulder injury turned him into a coaches’ box junkie on game days and elevated junior Drew Pyne to starting status until the notion of having to compete with Buchner and a portal plunger next spring drove him into the transfer portal himself on Dec. 5.
Presumably, the now Arizona State quarterback eavesdropped on Buchner throwing for a career-high 274 yards, rushing for a career-high 61 (on 12 carries) and having a hand in seven touchdowns — three to Notre Dame receivers, two scampering into the end zone himself and two pick-6’s for South Carolina scores among his three interceptions.
“Obviously, as everyone can see, there’s a lot of room for me to improve,” Buchner said in career start No. 3 after holding down a tag-team niche role in 2021. “The game we played was great. We won the game, and I couldn’t be happier. But for me personally, I didn’t play to the standard I wanted to play.
“I accounted for two extra touchdowns I didn’t want me to account for. That’s not the standard I hold myself to. This offseason, I’m going to continue to work as usual. Put my head down and do it with my brothers. We’re going to continue to improve and we’ll be a great team.”
In other words, Hartman will have a fight on his hands should he start classes and winter conditioning in South Bend in 2 ½ weeks.
There’s a case to be made that Hartman’s presence on the roster would make Buchner better in the long run, from what he can learn from a QB who’s almost the same exact size (6-1, 215) and has a similar skill set.
That’s a notion for another day, though, as is who Buchner can eventually become.
Friday hinted at both the best and worst of what that could look like but wasn’t a true referendum on anything related to Buchner, given the long layoff. Except for his resiliency and mental toughness.
And in that sense, it was a perfect springboard toward spring.
“He’s special, man,” Freeman said. “I told him on the sideline, I told him after the game that there’s many different examples we use, but Tyler Buchner is an example of a guy that had a bumpy road.
“The way he finished off this season, his first year, having a chance to start, and the ability to just really tune out all the noise and focus on his job. That’s within a practice, within a season, within a game. That’s why I’m proud of him.”
The Irish (9-4) were driving for a 14-point command midway through the fourth quarter with a first-and-goal from the South Carolina 7-yard line. Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees broke from ND’s run-heavy rhythm, established in the second half, and called for a pass play to tight end Mitchell Evans. In traffic.
South Carolina cornerback O’Donnell Fortune stepped in front of Evans in the end zone, plucked the ball out of the air and raced 100 yards in the other direction to tie the game at 38-38.
“We were looking for a specific look, and we thought we had it,” Freeman said of the play call. “Didn’t have the exact look we were looking for, and the guy made a great play.
“Obviously, at that moment, we were running the ball really well, and again, ultimately we obviously shouldn’t have thrown it, shouldn’t have called it.”
The Irish did a lot right in the second half after falling behind 21-7 and 24-10 in the first half. They outgained the Gamecocks 355-100 after intermission, outrushed them 210-15 and held the potent South Carolina offense that topped Tennessee and Clemson in late November to 1-of-7 on third down.
They also closed impressively.
Buchner and the Irish running game followed Fortune’s interception return with a 80-yard, 12 play drive that chewed 6:01 off the clock, with the go-ahead score coming with 98 seconds left.
“When we were in that huddle and you see the O-line and they’re fixing their gloves and tightening their hands and they’re fierce, you just know,” Irish running back Logan Diggs said of ND’s physical dominance late in the game.
“I have the utmost trust in them and (O-line) coach Harry (Hiestand) and their preparation. All I do is adjust my reads and trust my coaches and go out there and execute. And they put us in great position to continue to run the ball.”
Diggs scored on a 75-yard swing pass in the second quarter, then gave the Irish their first lead, 38-31, early in the fourth on a 39-yard run.
Ironically, it was a Buchner-to-Evans pass — this one wide open and for 16 yards — that unbroke the 38-38 tie at the end of another run-heavy drive and gave the Irish the lead for good.
South Carolina’s Spencer Rattler did get the Gamecocks (8-5) to the Irish 34-yard line in less than a minute, though. But Notre Dame’s pass rush — without All-American and all-time Irish sacks leader Isaiah Foskey — threw the SC offense into reverse.
It was fourth-and-36 from the Gamecocks 40 when Rattler’s final heave into a crowd of mostly Irish defenders fell to the turf incomplete with 20 seconds left.
“We didn’t get into South Carolina (prep) until really two practices before we came down here,” Freeman offered up as his main takeaways. “So, the ability to really improve your roster, those guys that are coming back next year, and the ability to send these guys off the right way, that’s what’s the beauty of a bowl game.”
There was a lot of ugliness early on when South Carolina seemingly scored at will, without an offensive coordinator, and Notre Dame’s offense looked like they were playing without one. Gamecocks OC Marcus Satterfleld was hired away by new Nebraska coach Matt Rhule.
But then something important happened in Freeman’s 14th game as Irish head coach that didn’t in game 1 of his regime, the 37-35 come-from-ahead loss to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl last Jan. 1. And in some other games early this season.
Halftime adjustments.
Included in the second-half mastery was a perfectly executed fake punt — in Irish territory, no less — that led to ND’s first fourth-quarter TD and answered South Carolina’s perfectly executed fake field goal for a TD in the first half.
Grad senior wide receiver Braden Lenzy, one of the outgoing players who came back, who believed and who opted in, covered 20 yards for a first down on what amounted to a jet sweep but was technically a pass from upback Davis Sherwood.
Lenzy finished with four receptions for 89 yards, including a 44-yard TD strike late in the third quarter to tie the game at 31-31. He came into the game with zero receptions in three of his last five regular-season games.
“For a guy like Braden, just continuing to do his job and run as hard as he can …that’s an unselfish position,’ Freeman said. “It’s just great to see him get the opportunities to go make a play and make them today.”
Maybe above all Friday’s win was a triumph for Freeman’s team culture, perhaps an overlooked asset in what Freeman is trying to build.
More than any other Irish coach in recent memory, he leans into how hard the Notre Dame experience can be, and bottles it and sells it as a life asset, instead of framing it as something that can perhaps be endured.
The Gator Bowl experience sort of encapsulated Freeman’s vibe, particularly where Buchner was concerned.
“The interceptions are tough,” Buchner said. “That goes along with rust and goes along with just making mistakes. Being able to bounce back from that is something that’s a credit to our offensive line, our wide receivers, our tight ends, coaches putting me in good spots.
“It really comes down to every single person on the staff: the head coach all the way down to the managers. They’re so supportive. They help me in every single facet of life and it showed in today’s game.
“Every single person on the sideline supporting me, there for me. That kind of support goes a long way in a 20-year-old’s head. Throwing three picks, two for a touchdown, it wasn’t that fun. But when you have such a great group of guys around you, such a great support staff around you, it makes things a lot easier.”
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