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.
🚨NOTRE DAME FAKE PUNT FOR 1ST DOWN!🚨 pic.twitter.com/wE2izjGNuc— 𝗙𝗢𝗟𝗟𝗢𝗪 @𝗙𝗧𝗕𝗲𝗮𝗿𝗱𝟳 (@FTBeard7) December 30, 2022
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.