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Things To Learn: 2023 lessons should be apparent in Notre Dame’s Gator Bowl matchup with South Carolina

All the angst and frustration over the continued de-emphasis of bowl games overlook the added intrigue inherent to them as starters opt out or enter the transfer portal. No. 21 Notre Dame (8-4) will face No. 19 South Carolina (8-4) in Friday’s Gator Bowl (3:30 ET; ESPN) without its best offensive player, its best defensive player and its starting quarterback since mid-September.

Facing a top-20 opponent without tight end Michael Mayer (opted out to prepare for the NFL draft), defensive end Isaiah Foskey (ditto) and quarterback Drew Pyne (transferring to Arizona State), not to mention fifth-year defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola (injury) and senior cornerback Cam Hart (ditto), could leave the Irish worryingly undermanned. Then again, the Gamecocks will be without 11 starters — half their starters, to make clear that obvious math — including effectively entire position groups of skill-position players. From a competitive standpoint, missing multiple tight ends, running backs and receivers is more costly than missing two individual stars on each side of the ball.

Hence, Notre Dame is favored by a field goal, as of Thursday afternoon.

Those absences will obviously change Friday’s game flow, but more pertinently, they will shed some light on the Irish in 2023.

This may be Tyler Buchner’s only start between his shoulder sprain against Marshall on Sept. 10 and the end of next season. There is a clear expectation that Notre Dame will bring in an experienced transfer quarterback, someone with a proven track record and an arm perhaps ideally suited to Tommy Rees’ offense. If (when) that becomes reality, Buchner will not be the Irish starter in 2023, no matter what spring position competition unfolds from an optics perspective.

Proving himself now would give Notre Dame both confidence in its backup quarterback next season and a tentative succession plan for the next few years, from Buchner to a couple incoming notable recruits.

“He’s ready to roll,” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said Thursday. “You talk about a guy that hasn’t played football for probably week 2 to week 12, he obviously had some time where he wasn’t on the practice field. But I think after 14 practices, he’s ready to roll.

“He’s been magnificent in practices. He’s done a great job of leading the offense, which to me, it’s not just throwing the ball. When you’re the quarterback at Notre Dame, it’s gaining the confidence of those guys around you. You’re the leader of that group. He’s done a good job of continuing to earn the trust of these guys that are surrounding him in that offense.”

All due respect to Pyne, who exceeded expectations as the Irish starter in leading Notre Dame to an 8-2 close to the season, but Buchner may be better-suited to face South Carolina, specifically, and thus create a personalized game plan even as a backup in 2023. The Irish demanded Buchner lead with his legs at Ohio State to begin the season because they did not have faith in any other part of their offense. Against the Gamecocks, they may do so again because the opposing defense welcomes it.

South Carolina gave up 192.4 rushing yards per game, No. 112 in the country, this season. Opponents rushed the ball 39.7 times per game against the Gamecocks, No. 102 in the country, and gained 4.85 yads per rush. Down a starting defensive end, two starting cornerbacks and a starting safety, that rush defense should be only worse.

On a per-play basis, opponents added an average of nearly a fifth of a point to their expected points total with each rush against South Carolina.

All of Notre Dame’s offensive line will line up against the Gamecocks, notably including fifth-year left guard Jarrett Patterson, the one among them both needing to find complete health and with the best pressing NFL aspirations. All three Irish running backs are set to enjoy the porous South Carolina defense.

The Irish may be in headlines this week (and next) because they may bring in the best transfer quarterback of the cycle, but their rushing game will dictate the on-field offense this week and likely still next season.

Buchner will not be the only informative piece of the offense. With Mayer off to the NFL and sophomore Cane Berrong in the transfer portal, Notre Dame will have only three tight ends available this weekend, with one of them better described as a fullback.

Sophomore Mitchell Evans will be asked to do more than run quarterback sneaks in Jacksonville, and in doing so, the Irish will see what their next quarterback may rely upon at tight end in 2023.

“You lose that crutch,” Freeman said. “At some point, when in doubt, you throw the ball to [Mayer]. Well, he’s not there.”

It may have been more fun this week to watch Mayer overwhelm a defense’s double-coverage as he snags a dozen Pyne passes, but it will be far more educational to watch Buchner throw a handful of targets toward Evans.

Similarly, Notre Dame’s defense will begin a transition a game earlier than anticipated. Foskey may not have threatened the Irish single-season sacks record, but posting double-digit sacks in two consecutive seasons is unprecedented in Notre Dame history. Ademilola provided a penetrating power in the middle of the defensive front, so often finding a way to stop an opponent on the most critical play in the fourth quarter that Freeman nearly assumed it would happen as the season went along.

His brother, defensive end Justin Ademilola, may or may not return in 2023. He will presumably start Friday, and junior Rylie Mills and senior Nana Osafo-Mensah will also see increased roles. If they, along with senior tackle Howard Cross, dominate the Gamecocks — who gave up 28 sacks this season, No. 77 in the country, but will now be without their starting right tackle — then some defensive buzz may follow this offseason. The Irish could return as many as nine defensive starters next season. Proven confidence in the two replacements would be a welcomed storyline opposite the incoming transfer quarterback.

Bowl games may not carry the heft they used to. Playing them on baseball fields after the preceding month was spent discussing recruiting does not help that cause, and none of that content overload ties to players opting out for the NFL draft or seeking new destinations next season.

Those are realities. The tradeoff to them is bowl games can now offer a peephole into the future, with once-forgotten starters getting a quick cameo to remind of their talent and long-time reserves getting chances to impress.

“The most important thing is winning and that’s going to give us the most momentum as we continue to move forward,” Freeman said. “Our focus is right now. Our focus is finishing the season off right now and the right way.

“If you continue to focus on the future and think about the future, you can lose this opportunity we have right in front of us. The future will be taken care of if we finish the season off the right way.”

Freeman has to traffic in that broad coach-speak. More precisely, the future will be taken care of in this bowl game because 2023 has already arrived, if two days early on the field.

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