'Let's do it' — Fake punt proves pivotal in Notre Dame's Gator Bowl win over South Carolina

Mike Berardino
ND Insider

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Beamer Ball cuts both ways.

That was the lesson in Notre Dame’s 45-38 win over South Carolina, a Gator Bowl matchup featuring two of the best special team units in the country.

Shane Beamer's Gamecocks struck first with a fake field goal that went for a 23-yard touchdown pass in the opening quarter. Kai Kroeger, the outstanding punter/holder from Lake Forest (Ill.) High School, took a direct snap and found Hunter Rogers (normally the long snapper) behind the confused Irish defense.

“It was just a miscommunication,” Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman said. “We’ve repped so many different fakes on field goal and punt. Anytime you’ve got two guys covering one guy, maybe somebody is open. That’s what happened.”

Tied at 31 early in the fourth quarter, Notre Dame faced a fourth-and-4 at its 33 when special-teams coordinator Brian Mason gave Freeman the nudge.

“We ran a punt earlier in the game,” Freeman said. “We wanted to see the look we would get, and after we ran the punt, (Mason) said, ‘It’s there if we want it.’ Right before we went out there (in the fourth), he said, ‘It’s there.’ I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ “

Gunner Braden Lenzy went in motion and took the jet-sweep toss from upback Davis Sherwood. Lenzy, who on the previous series hauled in a 44-yard touchdown heave, raced around right end for a 20-yard gain.

Three plays later, Logan Diggs barreled up the middle for a 39-yard touchdown run that put the Irish in front for the first time.

“We’ve been practicing that fake all year long,” Freeman said. “There’s no more games left, and I wanted to run it. I knew going into the game, if the opportunity presented itself, I wanted to run it. It was beautifully executed.”

The last time Freeman and Mason were on a bowl sideline together, Cincinnati ran a fake punt against Georgia in the 2021 Peach Bowl.

“You always want to try to find an advantage and create chaos on some of those things,” Mason said on Dec. 11. “We’ve always got something that’s ready to go. If the opportunity is there, we’d certainly love to be able to change the game with that.”

Friday was that opportunity.

Analysis:In Gator Bowl classic, Notre Dame's Tyler Buchner shakes off rust and talks like a winner

Comeback context

Notre Dame running back Logan Diggs (3) runs for a touchdown after a catch while chased by South Carolina defensive back O'Donnell Fortune, right, during the second quarter of the Gator Bowl NCAA college football game on Friday, Dec. 30, 2022, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/Gary McCullough)

Almost a year to the day after blowing a 21-point first-half lead in the Fiesta Bowl loss to Oklahoma State, Notre Dame used a different approach against the Gamecocks.

Trailing 21-7 after the first quarter and 24-10 with five minutes left before halftime, Notre Dame came to life on its longest completion of the season: a short pass that Logan Diggs turned into a 75-yard touchdown.

Tyler Buchner’s 54-yard flanker screen to Lorenzo Styles on the first scrimmage play of the season against Ohio State had stood as the longest Irish completion until Friday.

The 14-point deficit was the largest Notre Dame had overcome in a victory under Freeman. The Irish trailed North Carolina 7-0 early in the second quarter, and trailed BYU (6-3) and Cal (17-14) early in the second and fourth quarters, respectively.

In Irish bowl history, only the 1979 Cotton Bowl win against Houston – the famed Chicken Soup Game – required a greater comeback. Fever-stricken Joe Montana, playing on a 24-degree New Year’s Day in Dallas, wiped out a 22-point fourth quarter deficit in a 35-34 win.

Houston Griffith sets record

Houston Griffith, the super senior safety from Chicago, played in his 62nd game for Notre Dame, breaking a tie with former defensive tackle Kurt Hinish for most in program history.

Griffith, a staple on special-teams coverage units, took two snaps in a reserve role on defense.

Starting right guard Josh Lugg, the sixth-year man from Wexford, Pa., played all 80 snaps on offense in his 61st career game with Notre Dame. Lugg tied Hinish for No. 2 all-time in game appearances.

Slot corner TaRiq Bracy played in his 55th career game, tying him with Jayson Ademilola and former kicker Jonathan Doerer for fifth in Irish history. Injured linebacker Bo Bauer ends his career fourth with 56 games.

Ben Morrison's scary collision

Freshman cornerback Benjamin Morrison did not return after a violent collision with South Carolina tight end Nate Adkins early in the third quarter.

Morrison, a 6-footer listed at 179 pounds, stopped a barreling Adkins (6-3, 252 pounds) in the open field after a 17-yard gain over the middle. Morrison, whose leaping grab just before halftime gave him six interceptions for the year, walked off with two athletic trainers and headed straight for the medical examination tent.

No postgame update was offered on Morrison, who played 50 defensive snaps. Adkins also was sidelined for the duration.

Bracy, who had a forced fumble and tied linebacker JD Bertrand with a team-high eight tackles, led the Irish defense with 66 snaps. Clarence Lewis (46 snaps) and freshman Jaden Mickey (29) also kept quarterback Spencer Rattler in check as the Gamecocks, who punted once in the first half, went three-and-out five times in their first six possessions after the break.

“We have a lot of DBs in that room who are ready to step up and make plays,” Bracy said. “Losing Ben, it hurts. He’s part of our core group. We just made sure he was all right and just continued to do what we were doing.”

Follow Notre Dame football writer Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino.