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Tyler Buchner outburst puts Notre Dame behind yet leads Irish comeback vs South Carolina in Gator Bowl

TaxSlayer Gator Bowl - Notre Dame v South Carolina

JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA - DECEMBER 30: Tyler Buchner #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish rushes for a touchdown during the 1st quarter of the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl against the South Carolina Gamecocks at TIAA Bank Field on December 30, 2022 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

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Tyler Buchner fit a season’s worth of highlights and drama into his only start since early September. Seven times the sophomore quarterback made a decision that directly led to a touchdown, though two of those were interception returns to the end zone for No. 19 South Carolina (8-5).

Yet Buchner led No. 21 Notre Dame (9-4) to a comeback win in the Gator Bowl, bouncing back from each of his mistakes with better decisions. Hefinished the day with five total touchdowns, not counting those pick-sixes, to carry the Irish to a 45-38 win in a chaotic showing.

His third touchdown pass of the day came on the drive immediately after a red-zone interception allowed the Gamecocks to tie the game at 38 late in the fourth quarter. Notre Dame had run the ball into the red zone with ease when Buchner never identified a defender on the goal line, gifting O’Donnell Fortune a 100-yard interception return touchdown.

“We were looking for a specific look, we thought we had it,” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said. “We didn’t have exactly what we were looking for, and the guy made a great play. Obviously, at that moment, we were running the ball really well. Again, ultimately we probably honestly shouldn’t have thrown it, shouldn’t have called it.”

The Irish did it all over again on the next drive and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees once again called a passing play in the red zone despite the efficient rushing. Buchner connected with sophomore tight end Mitchell Evans for the game-winning score.

“But the greatest thing about it was to be able to, again, use that situation as another example for the future, the ability of that offense to have that happen, look at him on the sideline and say, ‘In about five minutes or two minutes, you’re going to go right back out there and you’re going to march down the field and score,’” Freeman said. “That’s what it’s all about.”

He missed Notre Dame’s last 10 regular-season games after suffering a shoulder sprain in week two, but Buchner never looked worried about contact on Friday. He converted an early third-and-short on a quarterback sneak, leading with his injured shoulder, and then on the same drive took a draw 15 yards to put the Irish on the scoreboard.

His shoulder never bothered him, but his accuracy still somewhat lacked, as it did early in the season, as well. Worse yet, Buchner made three woefully poor decisions resulting in those Gamecocks’ defensive touchdowns. An impromptu shovel pass became an interception; a short, deflected pass resulted in a pick-six; and missing Fortune cost Notre Dame a ripe scoring chance in the red zone.

Buchner finished with 274 yards on 18-of-33 passing, throwing three touchdowns along with those three interceptions. He added 82 yards and two more scores on 10 rushes, sacks adjusted. He kept South Carolina on its heels, when he wasn’t gifting the Gamecocks interceptions. Nearly every play with the ball in Buchner’s hands was an entertaining one, if nothing else.

“He’s special,” Freeman said. “And I told him on the sideline and told him after the game that there’s many different examples we use him, Tyler Buchner as an example of a guy that had a bumpy road. And the way he finished off this season, his first year in having a chance to start, and the ability to just really tune out all the noise and focus on his job. And that’s within bowl practice, within a season, that’s within a game. That’s why I’m proud of him.”

Buchner may have won Gator Bowl MVP, but the biggest change between the first half and the second half did not come from Buchner. The Irish outscored South Carolina, 28-14, after halftime because their defense shut down Gamecocks quarterback Spencer Rattler. He was 20-of-25 for 146 yards and a touchdown in the first half, but that efficiency fell by the wayside in the second, going 9-of-21 for 100 yards and a touchdown after the half.

The only moment of success Rattler enjoyed after halftime came on a 42-yard toe-tapping touchdown pass to Xavier Legette, their second scoring connection of the day. Whether or not Legette got his foot down in bounds, the catch came when junior cornerback Clarence Lewis had just stepped in for freshman cornerback Benjamin Morrison, sidelined with an injury. Lewis appeared to expect junior safety Xavier Watts to pick up coverage downfield, a miscommunication that gave Rattler a window to Legette.

Beyond the final score, Notre Dame’s defense played well. Remove the two pick-sixes and South Carolina scored only 24 points, seven of which came via a fake field goal.

In all respects, Buchner kept the game interesting, that ledger coming out in Irish favor by one notch, a bold play call from Rees that showed continued trust in his inexperienced quarterback despite his repeated mistakes.

That trust and that relationship will now slip under a microscope as Notre Dame will reportedly await the transfer of Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman. If and when that becomes reality, Buchner will have to decide if he wants to play the role of situational quarterback for a season as he did his freshman year in 2021. If not, did he show enough dazzling moments against South Carolina to impress a potential transfer destination?

Rees and Freeman will hope to hold onto him, as the Gator Bowl performance certainly showed how explosive a Buchner-driven offense can be, if it finds its way beyond turnovers.

A COUPLE OTHER NUMBERS
— Notre Dame finished with 287 rushing yards on 42 carries, once adjusting for sacks and two kneel downs. Buchner’s 82 yards were outdone by sophomore running backs Logan Diggs’ 89 and Audric Estimé's 95. Neither Diggs nor Estimé was tackled for a loss on any of their 27 carries. In fact, aside from the sacks and kneel downs, no Irish rushes went for negative yards.

“I’ve always said this, when you have the ability to run the ball and the other team knows you’re going to run it, that’s when you know things are rolling,” Freeman said. “And they knew we were going to run ball.”

— Diggs added another 81 yards on two catches. All told, the sophomore duo had 30 touches for 273 yards and two touchdowns.

— By covering the opening kickoff, fifth-year safety Houston Griffith played in his 62nd career game for Notre Dame, setting a new Irish record. Kurt Hinish previously held the record with 61 appearances.

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter11:48 — South Carolina touchdown. Xavier Legette 13-yard pass from Spencer Rattler. Mitch Jeter PAT good. South Carolina 7, Notre Dame 0. (10 plays, 75 yards, 3:12)5:54 — Notre Dame touchdown. Tyler Buchner 15-yard rush. Blake Grupe PAT good. South Carolina 7, Notre Dame 7. (10 plays, 50 yards, 3:37)2:27 — South Carolina touchdown. Hunter Rogers 23-yard pass from Kai Kroeger. Jeter PAT good. South Carolina 14, Notre Dame 7. (10 plays, 75 yards, 3:27)0:44 — South Carolina touchdown. DQ Smith 47-yard interception return. Jeter PAT good. South Carolina 21, Notre Dame 7.

Second Quarter8:36 — Notre Dame field goal. Grupe 37 yards. South Carolina 21, Notre Dame 10. (12 plays, 56 yards, 7:08)5:18 — South Carolina field goal. Jeter 45 yards. South Carolina 24, Notre Dame 10. (10 plays, 48 yards, 3:18)5:06 — Notre Dame touchdown. Logan Diggs 75-yard pass from Buchner. Grupe PAT good. South Carolina 24, Notre Dame 17. (1 play, 75 yards, 0:12)

Third Quarter10:28 — Notre Dame touchdown. Buchner 11-yard rush. Grupe PAT good. South Carolina 24, Notre Dame 24. (5 plays, 68 yards, 2:21)8:31 — South Carolina touchdown. Legette 42-yard pass from Rattler. Jeter PAT good. South Carolina 31, Notre Dame 24. (5 plays, 67 yards, 1:48)0:31 — Notre Dame touchdown. Braden Lenzy 44-yard pass from Buchner. Grupe PAT good. South Carolina 31, Notre Dame 31. (1 play, 44 yards, 0:08)

Fourth Quarter12:41 — Notre Dame touchdown. Logan Diggs 39-yard rush. Grupe PAT good. Notre Dame 38, South Carolina 31. (7 plays, 73 yards, 2:13)
7:42 — South Carolina touchdown. O’Donnell Fortune 100-yard interception return. Jeter PAT good. Notre Dame 38, South Carolina 38.
1:38 — Notre Dame touchdown. Mitchell Evans 16-yard pass from Buchner. Grupe PAT good. Notre Dame 45, South Carolina 38. (12 plays, 80 yards, 6:01)

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