FOOTBALL

Gator Bowl: How did Notre Dame handle the most important drive of its season? Nailed it

Michael Wanbaugh
South Bend Tribune

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — In the end, patience won out over panic. 

If there was a moment during Friday’s TaxSlayer Gator Bowl that seemed to mirror the disappointments that tripped Notre Dame up against lesser foes this season, it came at the 7:52 mark of the fourth quarter. 

That’s when South Carolina’s O’Donnell Fortune picked off a Tyler Buchner pass in the end zone and raced 100 yards up the sideline for a tying touchdown.  

More:How the Gator Bowl points were scored: No. 21 Notre Dame vs. No. 19 South Carolina

It was a kick in the teeth. It was also a kick in the pants. Fortune’s Gator Bowl record return didn't break the Irish resolve, but rather emboldened it. Notre Dame responded by marching 80 yards on 12 plays for a 45-38 win over the Gamecocks (8-5) at TIAA Bank Stadium. 

"The greatest thing about it was to be able to, again, use that situation as another example in the future,” said Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman, who insisted all week that this was an important game for the Irish (9-4) to win. "… For them to march down the field and score (after the interception), that's what it's all about.” 

Notre Dame quarterback Tyler Buchner, left, and head coach Marcus Freeman, right, embrace on the field after the Gator Bowl NCAA college football game against South Carolina on Friday, Dec. 30, 2022, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/Gary McCullough)

This, along with the 35-14 thrashing of then No. 5 Clemson on Nov. 5, is a benchmark moment for the first-year head coach who got better as the game went along and more confident as the season progressed.  

A common knock against Notre Dame in its five Freeman-era losses has been a lack of effective halftime adjustments and getting outcoached in the second half. 

What the numbers tell us: Team and individual stats from Notre Dame vs. South Carolina

That wasn’t the case Friday, as punctuated by the boisterous and jovial press box exit of the Irish assistant coaches led by grinning offensive coordinator Tommy Rees. 

Job well done, guys.

With the last remaining Maxwell House coffee processing plant just blocks away — you can smell it from TIAA Bank Stadium — the Irish didn’t need a jolt of caffeine to wake up when it mattered. Their eyes were opened and fortunes changed with a strong second-half dose of running game, the identity of this team throughout the season. And it was good to the last drop. 

Buchner, making his first start since injuring his non-throwing shoulder late in a September home loss to unranked Marshall, played at times like a guy who hasn’t taken a snap in nearly three and half months.  

Dec 30, 2022; Jacksonville, FL, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish tight end Mitchell Evans (88) runs the ball after the catch against the South Carolina Gamecocks in the first quarter in the 2022 Gator Bowl at TIAA Bank Field. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Reper-USA TODAY Sports

He threw three interceptions, all of which led to South Carolina touchdowns. He looked disheveled at times, trying to do too much. But he didn’t lose hope, he didn’t get discouraged, he didn’t give up. Instead, he leaned on his teammates who were supporting him and found a way to win his first ever game as a starter.

“That kind of support goes a long way in a 20-year old's head,” Buchner said. “(I throw) two picks 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.” 

So does Notre Dame's top tier offensive line of Joe Alt, Jarrett Patterson, Zeke Correll, Josh Lugg and Blake Fisher. People would have understood if Patterson, a senior co-captain, would and sat this one out as a projected high NFL Draft pick. But as he said Thursday, this was one last chance to play with his Irish teammates and he wasn't going to miss it.

Maybe Patterson's presence was enough to make a difference on that final drive as the offense took a deep breath after the pick-6 and got back to work pounding the rock. First it was Logan Diggs up the middle for 17 yards. A few plays later it was Audric Estime for 12. Then it was Chris Tyree’s turn with a couple positive carries and a 9-yard screen catch for a first down on third-and-5 to the Gamecocks’ 19. 

Facing third-and-7 from the 16, and already in field goal range, Buchner perfectly executed a play-action misdirection pass to tight end Mitchell Evans for what would hold as a game winning 16-yard touchdown with 1:38 left on the clock. Who needs consensus All-American Michael Mayer anyway? 

It was the perfect drive to end an up-and-down season with a surge of hope heading into spring practice. 

Last year in its 37-35 Fiesta Bowl collapse against Oklahoma State, Notre Dame dropped QB Jack Coan back to pass a program record 67 times. This year Buchner finished 18 of 33 for 274 yards and three touchdowns. He also ran 12 times for 61 yards and two scores on his way to earning the game’s MVP award. 

But it was the coaching that came through for Buchner as much as the other way around. Freeman and his assistants utilized a game plan that wore down the Gamecocks’ defense and established control of the line of scrimmage when it mattered.  

Notre Dame Fighting Irish quarterback Tyler Buchner (12) and teammate offensive lineman Jarrett Patterson (55) walk off the field with the MVP trophy and the Ash Verlander Champions Trophy after their victory over South Carolina in the Gator Bowl. The University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish took on the University of South Carolina Gamecocks in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl game in Jacksonville, Florida's TIAA Bank Field Friday, December 30, 2022. The first half ended with South Carolina holding a 24 to 17 lead but Notre Dame came back and with a late fourth quarter touchdown, won the game 45 to 38. [Bob Self/Florida Times-Union]

Even after trailing by 14 points twice in the first half, it became clear by the end of the third quarter that Notre Dame was the better team. 

“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,” Diggs said of taking control of the game. “I have the utmost trust in them and (OL) 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.” 

Notre Dame rushed for just 54 yards on 17 carries in the first half, splitting time of possession with South Carolina nearly even. In the final 30 minutes the Irish ran 29 times for 210 yards while dominating time of possession 21:46 to 8:14. 

It was the reason they won. No panic, just the perseverance Freeman believes will carry the Irish to bigger and better accomplishments in the future.  

“I know I've said this before, but we're on that bumpy road, and (the players) continued to trust their coaches, to trust their leaders,” Freeman said. "This is a great way to finish off this 2022 season.” 

And start working toward 2023. 

Michael Wanbaugh is sports edior of the South Bend (Ind.) Tribune

Michael Wanbaugh is sports editor of the South Bend (Ind.) Tribune