Overreactions: Notre Dame Survives Gator Bowl That Mirrored 2022 Season

Notre Dame fell behind 21-7 early to South Carolina, but just like they rebounded from an 0-2 start to the season, the Irish bounced back and got the win.

The 2022 Gator Bowl was a rollercoaster of emotions for Notre Dame and head coach Marcus Freeman. Much like his entire first season in charge of the Fighting Irish, we experienced some highs and some lows before ultimately seeing Notre Dame come out on top 45-38 in a wildly entertaining, if not anxiety-producing, bowl win. Here are my main takeaway from the game.

Al Golden’s adjustments

I was critical of Al Golden during the first 35 or so minutes of the Gator Bowl since it felt like the Irish defense was on its heels most of the day. But, in retrospect, South Carolina emptied the entire playbook and threw everything it could at the Irish, knowing they were undermanned. It worked for a while too. In the first half, the only real stop Notre Dame got was on the unforced fumble by South Carolina. Yes, the one touchdown was on a fake field goal, but South Carolina was still in a position to score there.

In the second half, though, the Notre Dame defense settled in, and Golden adjusted to what South Carolina was doing. As a result, South Carolina mustered just 100 yards of offense in the second half. After the flurry of 21 points the Gamecocks put up on the board in the first quarter, they scored just 17 the rest of the game, seven of which came on a pick-6 and another seven of which came on a “touchdown” that sure looked out of bounds to anyone who knows the laws of physics (i.e., white chalk only being able to fly in the air if the player actually touches the white part of the field).

This was a game where it felt like the defense played worse than they actually did, thanks to the second-half adjustments. South Carolina had five straight three-and-outs at one point.

Tyler Buchner’s Resilience

Tyler Buchner played about how I expected him to play – he did some great things and some not-so-great things. That is what you expect from a sophomore quarterback making his third career start after being out the last three months with an injured shoulder. The interceptions come with the territory of a young quarterback. That doesn’t make them acceptable, but you expect a young quarterback to make some mistakes.

On the first pick-6, Buchner had his arm hit, but there was a good chance that the ball was getting intercepted anyway, even if the arm didn’t get hit because it was going into heavy traffic. The second interception was a classic “trying to do too much and being too inexperienced to know to just eat the sack” situation. And the last interception, I’ll get into more in a bit, but suffice to say it’s a throw you just can’t make.

All that said, Buchner still accounted for five Notre Dame touchdowns – three passing and two rushing – and we saw glimpses of what the staff saw in handing him the reigns this summer. He made plays with his legs that Drew Pyne couldn’t, and he made some throws that Pyne couldn’t by changing his arm angle to avoid deflections.

The most impressive aspect of Buchner’s performance, though, was he was pretty unflappable. He made mistakes but returned to work after them and didn’t let them linger. That isn’t something that Pyne was great at. Buchner is likely headed to a backup role in 2023, assuming Notre Dame lands Sam Hartman as everyone expects, but he showed the skill that won him the job this year. So it would be foolish to write him off at this point.

Why Did Rees Call a Pass on 1st and Goal?

Back to Buchner’s second pick-6. Why is Tommy Rees even calling a pass there anyway? It was first and goal from the seven yard-line. The previous five plays on that drive were:

  • Buchner 17 yard run
  • Buchner 1 yard run
  • Buchner pass to Diggs for 6 yards
  • Buchner 3 yard run
  • Audric Estime 26 yard run

Notre Dame had finally established the run after rushing for 55 yards in the first half. South Carolina’s undermanned defense was getting gassed. It would have even been advantageous to run more clock there before potentially going up 14. Instead, Rees called a pass over the middle with a young quarterback who had already thrown two interceptions. If you have a veteran quarterback, sure, throw the ball there. But part of being a good OC is knowing your personnel.

This isn’t just a Rees thing, either. So many professional coaches outsmart themselves by getting away from what is working. Run the dang ball there.

Finally, a long touchdown for Lenzy

Braden Lenzy deserved to score a long touchdown in this game after being missed on so many deep throws the last two years. Unfortunately, Lenzy’s game never aligned with the quarterbacks he played with well. He was open a lot downfield throughout the last two seasons but was constantly either missed or the ball never came his way because some Irish quarterbacks focused on Michae Mayer first, second, and third at times.

Lenzy tied the game at 31 in the third quarter with this 44-yard touchdown that was a long time coming.

Lenzy went on to add one of the game’s most crucial plays with a fake punt conversion that kept alive the drive that gave Notre Dame their first lead of the game. Lenzy likely will not be back in 2023 despite having eligibility – at least based on most reports so far – so it was great to see him have the impact he did yesterday. His 89 yards were a career-high.

Brian Mason doing more Brian Mason things

Seeing someone get the best of Brian Mason in the first quarter when South Carolina successfully faked a field goal, scoring a touchdown on the play was weird. That’s the kind of play we expect to see from Brian Mason’s special teams units, not vice versa.

However, Mason would get revenge later in the game with one of the best fake punts we’ve seen out of the Irish in some time. Ona 4th and four from their own territory, Mason called for a fake punt featuring a pop-pass from Davis Sherwood to Braden Lenzy off a jet sweep.

Mason was the best hire that Marcus Freeman made last year, and the Gator Bowl only showed that again despite the fake field goal from South Carolina early. Mason’s fake punt was an excellent design and was executed flawlessly.

Give Mason a raise, or two, this off-season.

Jordan Botelho shows glimpses for 2023

With Isaiah Foskey opting out of the Gator Bowl, Jordan Botelho got a live auction for the starting 2023 VYPER role. Botelho did about all he could to take an early lead for the spot. Botelho played a career high 47 snaps in the game and responded with 2 sacks and 6 hurries. No one else on the Irish roster had more than 2 hurries in the game. Botelho added a quarterback hit for a total of 9 pressures in the game. As a team, Notre Dame had 21 pressures in the game. Howard Cross was the next closest to Botelho in pressures with 3.

Botelho does not have Foskey’s length, but he was a nightmare for South Carolina to block on Friday afternoon. He gave Irish fans a glimpse of what he could be capable of in a more permanent role in this defense. For context, Botelho’s 47 snaps is exactly what Foskey averaged per game this season. Foskey did not have any single game with more than 8 pressures (Cal).

A reverse Fiesta Bowl

In last year’s bowl game, Notre Dame raced out to a 28-7 lead they couldn’t hold onto. This year the Irish erased a 21-7 deficit in the first quarter in their bowl game. What a difference a year makes. Despite all the insanity in this game, Marcus Freeman’s squad never gave up and kept fighting – even when it would have been very easy to do so.

A lot of teams wouldn’t have responded to the 14-point swing of Buchner’s fourth-quarter pick-6 with a 12-play, 80-yard drive that sucked over six minutes off the clock. The stadium was rocking, and South Carolina stole all the momentum in a heartbeat. Instead, the Irish stayed cool, regained the lead, and then held on for the victory.

In many ways, this game was a microcosm of the entire season. There was a lot of good in the game, just like in the season, mixed in with some inexplicable things that left us scratching our heads, just like those losses to Marshall and Stanford. But, like during the season, Freeman’s team showed the poise not to flinch and came out with a victory. Bowl games don’t mean as much as they used to, but there is a big difference between heading into the off-season 9-4 versus 8-5 – especially since 8-5 would have meant ending the season on back to back losses.

Freeman and his staff still have a lot of work to do in roster construction and game management for the Irish to be in a more meaningful bowl matchup next year, but just like with Buchner, we saw enough from Freeman this year to see the promise of the future.

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13 Comments

  1. Tulane hung 46 on USC….because USC players are soft, and the defense is a sieve.

    If ND had a decent passing QB, that would have been a W.
    USC’s last win of the season would have been UCLA (UCLA did hang 45 on their non-defense).
    Cosmetics Boy wouldn’t have been invited to NYC, and ND would have made a NY6 bowl.

    But by all means….stick with Buchner. next year. What’s another season, right?
    Fall Saturdays are meant to be spent frustrated and un-enertained.

  2. Not the season I was hoping for, but it turned out better than I thought it would after the loss to Marshall. It was probably unreasonable to hope we were going to a NY Day 6 bowl this year, much less a playoff game. Sometimes that happens. But Freeman is a new HC. And let’s face it, some coaches have come in and had a great first year and then faltered (I’m looking at you Weis).

    There are some things that concern me about Freeman, but he has adjusted as the season went on. He has made some improvements. I’m not ready to give up on any of the coaches just yet. Rees has some work to do. I’d love to see him succeed. He was a gritty QB. He never quit, and when things went bad, he didn’t panic. And he’s a ND guy. When our former coach left the way he did and asked Rees to do the same, Rees all but gave him the middle finger. So yes, I want to see Rees help turn ND into a contender again. In a way it was probably his first year truly running the offense. I don’t believe for one second he had a free reign under the former coach.

    Golden on defense? Some good, some bad. But I see enough there to want to see him continue coaching at ND. He’s been a good DC in the past so hopefully the defense makes improvements next year.

    And it’s nice to see special teams actually become a factor again in games, other than just making field goals most of the time. They’re doing some of the “little” things that can make a big difference in games.

    So yes, ND has some work to do. But that is to be expected. Winning the bowl game is a definite step in the right direction.

    Go Irish!

  3. Saying it’s been so long since halftime adjustments at ND is only a half truth! Since 2017 every DC has made excellent adjustments! And they still are, as head coaches, or so I hear. And if you think our current DC made no adjustments in the Bowl, watch the game again, without the passion of the moment of the live version.

    BGC 77 82

  4. It was encouraging to see a coaching staff grow. It was also encouraging to see Coach Freeman establish his identity and implant that onto the team.
    Tuning a QB like Buchner in 3 weeks is something not seen at ND since Holtz.
    Adjusting to the opponent at half time hasn’t happened for over a decade.

    With the blatant disregard for student athletes in NCAA FBS football, Notre Dame will be challenged to compete.

    But this staff and the identity being built may help Notre Dame thrive as other programs and conferences who have sold out implode.

    I sure hope they stay on the road they’ve mapped out.

  5. 9-4 is a very respectable season one finish. Looks like Barb (my mother) was right again…she never wavered from believing in Marcus Freeman, even at 0-2.
    But season two will sell me, or not.
    Still, he knows his X’s and O’s, and his GameDay demeanor is good. He
    solved his (apparant) early and
    midseason problem of not knowing
    if his team was game ready or not.
    That shows me he’s a quick learner.
    All that remains is to win every game we ought to win….something Kelly did not achieve solidly until 2017 through 2021.
    If Coach Freeman succeeds there, it’s “Katy bar the door” for ND opponents, as Gregor used to say.
    My wife and I have decided to start going to games again, assuming we don’t have to pay for our tickets in Krugerands, though I’m not sure I have the strength for it. Thank you Coach Freeman et al. Way to save a lost season.

    BGC 77 82

    1. I’m not as encouraged by this win as some others, but we did the get the win!

      I agree with you 100% that next year is where I will be sold on, or completely turned off from, Freeman. Year 2 has historically been when coaches at ND have risen up, and Freeman inherited a program in very good shape.

      Taking a step back in your first year after taking over for the winningest coach in program history is understandable. So we’ll call 9-4 a good first season (even though it is a tremendous underachievement). But no excuses next year

  6. Good post, Frank. You hit on some critical shortcomings and some shining difference- makers.

    ND went 4-2 when playing ranked teams this season, only the fifth time since Holtz left that ND had a winning record vs. ranked teams for those who choose to focus on Marshall and Stanford games.
    Buchner ‘s third career start leads ND to 45 points vs. a ranked team in a road game for those to choose to focus on his three INTs. Like what was already said, know the situation before you make a call up by 7 on the seven late. That 1st & goal call = INT on the 7 when you have #7 on your team was truly among the worst red zone calls I’ve seen, but the O’ did scheme to score 45 while the D stopped SC four consecutive times, three totaling minus yardage in the second half w/ three and outs. Overcoming a fake kick TD and two pick sixes, one for 100 yards, showed a growth and maturation from their disastrous start this game and this season. Mr. Botelho, we’ve hardly had the chance to get to know you as you rattled Rattler consistently.
    As I’ve been saying for two seasons, more Botelho, please.

  7. Well said breaking down that entire 1st and goal situation, Frank. It’s so much more than just calling a play. It’s knowing the entire situation before you call the play. I’m not confident Rees really understands this. 3 years in should be enough time to figure that out.

    1. That was the best on the job training for a young inexperienced QB you could ever hope for. And to come out on top like they did should give Buchner a ton of confidence moving forward as well as help him win over the locker room. Whether Hartman arrives or not is still a question mark. If he does Buchner will be a valuable backup if not fasten your seatbelts.

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