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

Mike Berardino
South Bend Tribune

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Thirty-seven months.

That’s how long it had been since Tyler Buchner could talk like this, smile like this, stand tall like this after a game in which he started at quarterback.

No disrespect to the Santa Fe Christian Eagles, no match for The Bishop’s School in a Division II San Diego sectional playoff game back in November 2019, but Notre Dame’s 45-38 gut-check of a win on Friday over 19th-ranked South Carolina blew away that distant memory.  

“We won the game, and I couldn’t be happier,” the newly minted Gator Bowl MVP said after shaking off three interceptions, including two that were returned for touchdowns.

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

Sam Hartman — maybe you’ve heard the name — won the honor last year while leading Wake Forest to a blowout win over Rutgers. Friday, however, wasn’t about Hartman for a 21st-ranked Irish team that had to claw back from a pair of early 14-point deficits to claim the first bowl victory of the Marcus Freeman era.

This emotionally charged afternoon wasn’t about the pair of consensus All-Americans and impending NFL first-round draft picks watching in casualwear on the visitors’ sideline. Michael Mayer and Isaiah Foskey, having opted out of this game weeks ago, could do little more than cheer and console their teammates.

Nor did this wild rollercoaster ride turn on the absences of so many other notables.

It wasn’t about injured starters Jayson Ademilola, Cam Hart and Brandon Joseph missing from the Notre Dame defense.

It wasn’t about the 12 players from South Carolina’s rotation that missed the Gator Bowl due to injury, opt-outs or transfers.

It wasn’t about erstwhile Irish quarterback Drew Pyne, freshly transferred to Arizona State after posting an 8-2 mark as the starter.

From start to finish, awful to great, this day belonged to Buchner.

“Tyler was really positive today,” running back Logan Diggs said of his fellow sophomore. “He was really confident. I went to Tyler after both picks and he looked at me like, ‘Don't talk to me. I'm good.’ “

Notre Dame quarterback Tyler Buchner (12) holds with the MVP trophy after the team's Gator Bowl NCAA college football game against South Carolina on Friday, Dec. 30, 2022, in Jacksonville, Fla. Notre Dame won 45-38. (AP Photo/Gary McCullough)

That look, one could safely assume, was different from the glazed-over appearance Buchner showed as a freshman last year at Virginia Tech, when the Hokies took one back 26 yards for a score.

It was different as well from Buchner’s reaction to the fourth-quarter pick-6 he threw back in the Sept. 10 loss to Marshall. He would leave the field a bit later that day in agony after having his left shoulder slammed into the turf.

Two more of the worst sort of house calls happened to Buchner on Friday.

DQ Smith grabbed a tipped pass and took it back 47 yards for a score to make it 21-7 South Carolina late in the first quarter. And halfway through the final quarter, with the Irish on the verge of putting this one away, Buchner had a bullet pass over the middle returned 100 yards by O’Donnell Fortune.

How the Gator Bowl points were scored:No. 21 Notre Dame rallies to beat No. 19 South Carolina

This time, Buchner didn’t blink.

Taking hit after hit from a ferocious South Carolina pass rush, he just kept coming back for more.

“What a tough kid he is to go out there and run the ball like he did,” Gamecocks coach Shane Beamer said. “He’s a good athlete. He made some big-time throws. He was the starting quarterback at the beginning of the season for a reason, and I know how talented Drew Pyne is.”

An Oklahoma assistant from 2018-20, Beamer said the Sooners “recruited Drew Pyne like crazy and were crushed when we didn’t get him.”

For Buchner to beat out Pyne during their offseason competition, Beamer said, “tells you everything you needed to know about him.”

Notre Dame Fighting Irish tight end Mitchell Evans (88) goes into the end zone with a pass for the game winning touchdown with just over a minute and a half to play in the game. 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]

Friday brought another reminder of that upside.

“I love Tyler,” Diggs said. “I feel like he went out there today and showed that he is TB12.”

If not quite Brady-esque, Buchner still calmly drove the offense 80 yards in 12 plays for the winning points with 1:38 left. His third touchdown pass of the day, a 16-yard throwback lob to a wide-open Mitchell Evans, was not the work of a young man 111 days removed from his last game action.

Sixteen weeks. That’s how long it had been since a linebacker named Eli Neal busted up Buchner’s left shoulder and sent him into surgery three days later.

“I play football because of the games,” he said. “It’s only so fun working out, doing all this stuff. Getting hurt is not very fun. To go out there for one last time this season with people that I love to the end of this world -- my teammates — it’s an unbelievable opportunity.”

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

Buchner has had football taken away from him several times already in his young career. There was the torn ACL four plays into his sophomore season of high school.

After a 12-1 tour de force as a junior, including that 44-7 win on Nov. 22 at Ed Burke Field in Torrey Pines, COVID-19 wiped out his senior season along with the rest of the state’s prep schedule.

Then came this strange, trying, mind-bending season, one that could soon bring his ready-made replacement via the transfer portal. Sweat a few ugly interceptions? Not Buchner.

“The interceptions are tough,” Buchner said. “That goes along with rust and goes along with just making mistakes. … Throwing three picks, two for a touchdown, it wasn’t that fun.”

And yet, he never felt alone.

“Every single person on the sideline was supporting me, there for me,” he said, “and that kind of support goes a long way in a 20-year-old's head.”

This was a new Buchner talking. A young man with newfound perspective.

“Magnificent” was the word Freeman used this week to describe Buchner’s month of preparation.

Listening to Buchner break down his first career college victory as the starter, another “M” word came to mind: Magnanimous.

“Being able to bounce back from (costly mistakes) is something that I credit to our offensive line, wide receivers, tight ends and our coaches putting me in good spots,” he said. “It really comes down to every single person on the staff from 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.”

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