Keys to the game: How No. 21 Notre Dame can beat No. 19 South Carolina in the Gator Bowl

Justin Frommer
South Bend Tribune

College Football Playoff No. 21 Notre Dame (8-4) tries to end Marcus Freeman's first season as head coach with a TaxSlayer Gator Bowl win against No. 19 South Carolina in Jacksonville, Fla.. Kickoff is set for 3:30 ET at TIAA Bank Field and ESPN will televise.

Here are five keys to pulling off a win for the Irish:

Take advantage of South Carolina's opt-outs

South Carolina running back MarShawn Lloyd (1) is tackled by Clemson linebacker Wade Woodaz (17) during a game that resulted in a 31-30 win for the Gamecocks at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, South Carolina Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022.

The Gamecocks will be without their leading rusher MarShawn Lloyd and three of their top four receivers in Josh Vann, Jalen Brooks and Austin Stogner.

Lloyd rushed for 573 yards and nine touchdowns on 111 carries and is now in the transfer portal. As is Vann (18 catches, 296 yards and three scores) and Stogner (20 catches, 210 yards, one touchdown). South Carolina is also expected to be without Jalen Brooks, who caught 33 balls for 504 yards and a touchdown.

The Irish will also have their defensive absentees, most notably Isaiah Foskey who opted out of the bowl game and decaled for the NFL Draft. Still, the Irish must be able to handle a short-handed opposing offense that averaged more than 31 points per game during the regular season.

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See what Tyler Buchner has in his return, but don't lose offensive identity

Notre Dame quarterback Tyler Buchner (12) fakes a handoff to Notre Dame running back Audric Estime (7) during the Notre Dame vs. Marshall NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

The last time we saw Tyler Buchner, the Irish walked off their home field after Marshall's eye-opening upset to send Notre Dame to 0-2 on the season.

Buchner, a sophomore back early from an injury to his non-throwing shoulder, returns to a much different Notre Dame offense — one that knows it can dominate the line of scrimmage and control the game with running backs Audric Estime, Logan Diggs and Chris Tyree. The trio combined for 1,980 rushing yards and 17 rushing touchdowns this season.

In terms of winning the game, it will be important for Notre Dame to lean into its rushing attack, especially with the loss of future NFL first-round pick, Michael Mayer, who also opted out of the Gator Bowl.

Practice notes:Practice notes: Tyler Buchner set to reclaim starting QB role for Notre Dame in Gator Bowl

In three of its four losses this season, South Carolina has allowed more than 200 rushing yards.

For Notre Dame's future, it is one last chance before spring ball to see what Buchner, 378 passing yards, zero touchdowns and two interceptions pre-injury, has. There is no secret the Irish have been scanning the transfer portal for an experienced quarterback, most notably Wake Forest's Sam Hartman. Buchner knows this. And with Drew Pyne no longer waiting in the wings for an in-game change, Buchner's success will be paramount for the Irish's present and potential future.

Play clean football against ball-hawking secondary

Only 28 teams finished with more interceptions this season than South Carolina, which tied a group of defenses with 12. However, the Gamecocks' ball-hawking secondary will be missing some major pieces.

Oct 22, 2022; Columbia, South Carolina, USA; South Carolina Gamecocks defensive back Darius Rush (28) runs the ball after an interception against the Texas A&M Aggies in the first quarter at Williams-Brice Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Darius Rush (two interceptions) already declared for the NFL Draft, as has Cam Smith (one INT). David Spaulding's (one INT) availability is unclear after dealing with a foot injury throughout the season.

Notre Dame has thrown eight interceptions this season, though only two came from Buchner (both against Marshall). It will be important for him to take care of the ball throughout Saturday's game.

Limit Spencer Rattler through the air

Quarterback Spencer Rattler had been playing some of his best football over South Carolina's recent games, combining for nearly 800 passing yards, eight scores and a rushing touchdown in season-ending Top 5 upsets over Tennessee and Clemson.

Nov 26, 2022; Clemson, SC, USA;  South Carolina quarterback Spencer Rattler (7) celebrates after the game with Clemson at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, South Carolina on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022.  Mandatory Credit: Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

But this will be as thin of a roster as Rattler has played with all year with his starting running back and three of its top receivers are gone. The Gamecocks also struggle to protect Rattler, allowing 28 sacks in 12 games.

In three of South Carolina's four losses, Rattler has thrown under 250 yards, twice under 200.

Make the special teams play

Notre Dame linebacker Prince Kollie (10) scores during the Notre Dame vs. Clemson NCAA football game Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana.

The odds of there being a blocked punt in Saturday's game has to be as high as any game this season.

The Irish led college football with seven blocked punts. South Carolina is tied for second with Rutgers and Bowling Green with five blocked punts.

Whichever team can come up with the big special teams play could flip the momentum in its favor at a crucial point in the game.