The Notre Dame Fighting Irish close out their 2022 season with a Gator Bowl matchup against the South Carolina Gamecocks on Friday. Even though it’s not the bowl game the 8-4 Irish hoped to be playing in when they started this year’s campaign, the contest affords them the opportunity to get some momentum heading into the offseason.
South Carolina and head coach Shane Beamer also finished 8-4 and ended the regular season strong by delivering back-to-back wins against Top 10 teams in Tennessee and South Carolina. The problem for the Gamecocks is that their lineup has been depleted by players either entering the transfer portal or opting out of the game to prepare for the NFL draft.
Below is a look at some of the key matchups for this game:
QB Tyler Buchner vs. South Carolina Defense
Drew Pyne’s decision to transfer to Arizona State opened the door for Buchner to move back behind center. Buchner was thought to be lost for the season when he suffered a severe shoulder injury. However, he will return with the hope that the inevitable rustiness after his long layoff will fall off quickly. If not, freshman Steve Angeli may be called upon to take over.
The Gamecocks’ defense has enough holes in it that the Irish have the potential to put up plenty of points in this contest. On five occasions in 2022, South Carolina allowed more than 30 points per game. In addition, the Gamecocks need to find a way to replace the gaping hole left by edge rusher Gilber Edmond, who led the team in tackles-for-loss, to enter the transfer portal.
Notre Dame Defense vs. QB Spencer Rattler
The Irish defense has holes of their own that were seen periodically throughout the regular season. That includes two of the last three games in which the team allowed more than 30 points per game. Notre Dame was vulnerable to the running game in those clashes, though the Gamecocks don’t have a strong unit to exploit that flaw. That means getting a steady pass rush is a must.
Rattler began his collegiate career at Oklahoma and had a strong 2020 season before being replaced last year by Caleb Williams, who himself ended up leaving to play at USC. This season, Rattler has thrown for 2,766 yards and 16 touchdowns but also threw 11 interceptions and doesn’t offer much in the way of mobility with just 19 yards on the season.
RB Audric Estime vs. MLB Sherrod Greene
After making cameo appearances last season, Estime emerged this year as a central part of the Notre Dame running game. His bullish running style has him at the top among Irish backs with 825 yards and 11 touchdowns. Even though he only has three games of rushing for more than 100 yards, he’s still a threat each time he touches the ball with his 5.8 yards-per-carry average.
Greene is the Gamecocks’ second-leading tackler this season with 65 stops. He’s usually around the ball, having brought down ballcarriers behind the line of scrimmage and also picking up an interception in coverage. All of those numbers have been something he was unable to achieve during the previous two seasons as a result of injuries.
CB Benjamin Morrison vs. WR Antwane Wells
Morrison is hoping to cap what’s been an outstanding first season at Notre Dame. Despite his freshman status, he’s played like a veteran and will again have a challenge in this game. Of the nine Irish interceptions for the 2022 campaign, he has five of them. That batch came in two waves: a pair against Clemson, including a pick-six and a trio in the shutout of Boston College.
Wells is ending his first season with the Gamecocks after transferring from James Madison and has been Rattler’s favorite target for much of the year. He’s got good size at 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds and is undoubtedly intent on finishing strong. He combined for 20 catches, 308 yards and one touchdown during the aforementioned victories over Tennessee and Clemson.
TE Mitchell Evans vs. SS Nick Emmanwori
Evans has some huge shoes to fill, replacing Michael Mayer, who’s sitting out this game to prepare for the NFL draft. Evans actually has more experience running the ball than catching it, with just two grabs last season for 21 yards on his resume. That lack of experience is in contrast to the heavy usage of Mayer and, coupled with the lack of depth behind Evans, may end up putting more pressure on the Irish wideouts and runners.
Emmanwori leads the Gamecocks in tackles with 78, an impressive feat. However, a player at his position having such high numbers is indicative of a weak defense. How much activity he gets on Friday depends on how much of an effort offensive coordinator Tommy Rees makes to integrate Evans into the passing attack.