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Notre Dame Football: W.I.N. (What’s Important Now) — Beat SC Week 2.0, Gator Bowl Edition

Time to talk about the real USC and what this Gator Bowl match-up looks like, y’all

I cannot believe I have to work this week. I literally submitted PTO specifically for this timeframe so that I could just enjoy the holidays with my family (and because I’m already carrying over the max amount of PTO — use it or lose it baybeeeeee!!!).

But of course, my boss decided that, as we finish up the year and bring a lot of the project’s tasks to a close, that we “really should” hold this call just to keep everyone “in the loop.” No question I’m gonna log off immediately following this call and dive directly into some leftover Christmas cookies/fudge/candy and try to forget I just had to suffer through an hour of buzzwords and status updates.


Okay, let’s get this over with...

*presses “Join Call” button*

Happy Holidays, everyone! How are you all doing? Did everyone have a nice Christmas weekend??

*nodded/murmured affirmative responses across the board, as if anyone would tell me if they had a bad Christmas*

Great! I know I had a great time, but per usual it went SO FAST! I can’t believe we’re now just a few days from 2023. What a whirlwind of a year, especially December!

Okay, I think we’ve got most of the crew here — I know Hank and Emily are both unavailable on PTO, and Jim is out of pocket so I’m not sure he will be joining. I think we’re really just expecting Margaret and then we should be good to g— hi Margaret!! How are you, how was your holiday?

Awesome, okay so I guess we can dive into it — can everyone see my screen?

Sweet, well let’s do this. At this point I don’t think I need to really walk through the agenda, but let’s gaze at it briefly with some emotion as we realize it’s our last Project W.I.N. agenda of 2022...

I’d be bawling if I weren’t so shell-shocked by that fact. Okay, and we can quickly flip through these next couple slides, I don’t think we need to spend time talking about those today.

Okay cool, so let’s quickly jump into Last Week’s Results, as there isn’t TOO much to discuss considering there hasn’t been a game “last week” for a month, but there was some action and drama last week leading into Christmas, so let’s briefly talk about all that.

Per usual at this time of year, last week brought us Early Signing Day for the latest recruiting class, and per usual, way too many of us were way too invested in the college decisions of a bunch of high school seniors.

This 2023 class was largely a massive a success by Marcus Freeman and co., as its Blue Chip Ratio (4/5 star guys) was top-notch for an Irish class and featured a number of really exciting players at several positions of need. Unfortunately, the buzz was killed a little bit by the staff’s inability to hold onto some of the highest-rated commits they’d secured earlier in the recruiting cycle, with guys like Dante Moore, Keon Keeley, and ultimately Peyton Bowen all being 5-stars who were either privately or publicly committed to the Irish but ended up flipping elsewhere for probably a handful of reasons, not the least of which was guaranteed NIL deals up-front upon signing.

Bowen’s saga was especially dramatic, as the Moore rollercoaster had played out last spring/summer, and Keeley had decommitted before the 2022 regular season even kicked off. But Bowen had been committed for the entirety of 2022, and despite rumors of him potentially flipping to Oklahoma circulating for months, he remained committed to ND up until signing day. Unfortunately, Bowen then kind of went sideways with some of his decision making, announcing a commitment to Oregon on Early Signing Day in a hat ceremony where he faked out ND (much to his mom’s horror), and where Oklahoma wasn’t even a hat on the table.

However, by that evening, Bowen regretted his actions/choice — possibly due to his mother’s influence, or possibly due to the public blowback he got, or maybe just because he remembered Oregon wasn’t a major player for him for most of his recruitment for a reason. Whatever the case, reports suddenly came out that he hadn’t sent his letter of intent to Eugene, and he instead had told both ND and Oklahoma he had a change of heart and wanted to go there instead.

By the next day, reports were that he was going to choose the school where his girlfriend plays soccer and where his teammate (5-star QB Jackson Arnold) had signed to play and where he had visited countless times in recent months — Oklahoma. Sure enough, he finally ended the journey and signed with the Sooners, ending a wild 48 hours of unnecessary drama from a teenager that we all followed with bated breath.

Add in that the Irish lost Dylan Edwards to Deion Sanders’ Colorado pitch and Jayden Limar to the Oregon Ducks (he actually did sign with them), and it was somewhat of a bummer of a finish to what appeared to be a potentially historic class during the summer.

Still, though, there were also some positives. The ND staff landed 4-star athlete Brandyn Hillman in a no-doubt insurance policy move for Bowen flipping, and many think he has all the physical abilities to end up a star at ND, most likely at safety. They also grabbed a few grad transfers at punter, kicker, and wide receiver via the transfer portal, with the WR, Kaleb Smith from Virginia Tech, looking to be a very solid pickup and a guy who can definitely help the team win next season.

Furthermore, just looking at the class that stayed committed and signed, there was a reason we were excited about them, and it wasn’t just Bowen/Keeley. Freeman and co. went and got themselves a number of highly-rated receivers and defensive backs, including a couple wideouts who will probably play early in Jaden Greathouse and Braylon James and the highest rated duo of corners the Irish have gotten in a LONG time in Christian Gray and Micah Bell.

Add in some really nice prospects/future captains at linebacker, offensive line, d-line, etc., plus one of the more promising QB signees in years, and this was still a really nice class for Freeman and his staff to push the overall talent level of the roster forward, even if there weren’t any 5-star guys this time around.

So, it may not have been a perfect week of recruiting, but I think it’s still a very exciting time to follow the Irish’s recruiting efforts, especially when you consider some of the talent they’ve got committed for 2024 in QB C.J. Carr, WR Cam Williams, and now RB Aneyas Williams, who just recently pledged to ND. Here’s to hoping they keep those kids in the fold until next signing day, and add plenty more great talent to their class along the way!

Alright, so now moving on to our scorecard...

I won’t spend a ton of time talking through this, but just want to point out that there’s mostly green here, with just a few red/yellow circles, for obvious reasons that honestly weren’t totally in our control. So, this is a really encouraging scorecard to see, and I think there’s a chance we get everything on the next scorecard to green to close out the season/project.

Typically, we would now do Team Members of the Week recognition, but since the team hasn’t played since Thanksgiving weekend, instead I’ll just shout out a couple coaches who did the damn thing in recruiting to lock in their signees.

Congrats to Marcus, Chansi, Mike, Harry, and somehow, some way, our boy Tommy — these guys worked tirelessly to land a really good class despite all the wildness of the NIL era of recruiting. Well done y’all, and make sure you check your inboxes after this for a Chipotle gift card we’ve sent you in appreciation of a job well done!

Alrighty, now let’s turn out sights toward this week’s opponent — the South Carolina Gamecocks. Here’s the high-level info we should all study heading into this game...

I’ll let you guys peruse this in greater detail on your own time, but I just want to point out a few highlights:

  • Shane Beamer as their coach is too likable, in my opinion. He seems like a chip off the old block, a pretty good guy, and a fun one to play for considering his willingness to take a mayo bath last bowl season. I wish he was less likable heading into this match-up
  • South Carolina has two great mascots/mascot names in Cocky and Sir Big Spur, and I highly recommend reading this story from earlier in the year about Sir Big Spur to learn more about a really funny and fun live animal mascot and the drama behind it in Columbia
  • This USC was founded in 1801, which makes it one of the older universities in the country. Not top-25, mind you, but still really damn old
  • I’ve decided we need to refer to these guys as USC at all times, or at least all of this week. Anything to needle the Trojans, y’all
  • South Carolina has a very fun list of opponents they’ve never defeated, including Hawaii, UConn, multiple not-great Big Ten programs, Marshall (we feel that), North Carolina Medical College, every Charleston YMCA and athletic club/association that has ever existed, and of course the historic powerhouse that was Georgia Navy Pre-Flight
  • Their notable alumni list isn’t as extensive as somewhere like USC or Stanford, but it’s got a pretty fun mix of people that includes a soap opera actress, a singer/WWE ring announcer, a Guinness World Record holder, the entire band of Hootie and the Blowfish, the founder of XM Satellite Radio, Charlie Weis (grad school), an underwater archaeologist, some weirdo missionary who brought a human exhibit back to the U.S., and the stunt coordinator for Dodgeball and Borat, meaning he probably coordinated this scene:

Okay, now that we’ve covered all that — let’s double-click into the important details...namely, the names!!!

Hooooo baby, the Gamecocks CAME TO PLAY when it came to great names. I’ll let you guys read this list thoroughly to yourselves, out loud and probably trying various pronunciations and accents to make it fun. But for now, I just want to shout-out the parents of my personal favorites from the list: Hot Rod Fitten, Tonka Hemingway, O’Mega Blake, O’Donnell Fortune, Lovasea Carroll, Bam Martin-Scott, Grayson Mains, Akhnaton Shabazz, Gilber Edmond, and Hank Manos. Well done, you guys, and well done to all the parents of all 36 of these guys — truly an elite finish to a great season of opponent player names!!!

Alrighty, now what should we know in terms of more unimportant information about this South Carolina team? Let’s take a quick gander at the Key Competitive Insights!

First and foremost, it’s important we note the South Carolina players who will NOT be playing in this game, as just like Notre Dame’s Michael Mayer, Isaiah Foskey, and others, the Gamecocks have a number of guys who will either be sitting out due to the NFL Draft or the transfer portal.

Offensively, they’ll be without starting running back MarShawn Lloyd, who hopped into the portal a couple weeks ago. Lloyd was the team’s leading rusher in 2022 with 573 yards on 5.2 yards per carry and 9 rushing touchdowns, while also snagging 18 passes for 176 yards and 2 receiving touchdowns.

The Gamecocks’ second-leading rusher, starting TE Jaheim Bell (261 yards, 3.6 YPC, 3 TDs), also entered the portal, committing to the Florida State Seminoles after also being the team’s 4th-leading receiver on the year with 25 catches for 231 yards and 2 scores. Add in that they’ve lost their #2 TE in Austin Stogner (20 receptions, 210 yards, 1 TD) — who’s transferring back to Oklahoma after coming over with Spencer Rattler last off-season — and the Gamecocks are missing some key pieces when it comes to the ground game and their big targets come 3rd down and the red zone.

NCAA Football: Tennessee at South Carolina Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Defensively, the losses are even greater. South Carolina will be without two of their best defensive backs in Cam Smith (27 tackles, 5 PD, 1 INT) and Darius Rush (38 tackles, 7 PD, 2 INT, 1 FF), both of whom declared for the NFL Draft. Smith will be a potential first/early round pick, so he’s a big loss especially for defensive coordinator Clayton White, but both are key pieces in a South Carolina pass defense that was really the only strength of the group this season.

In addition to Smith and Rush, two key defensive front seven guys will not play in the game as well, as DL Zacch Pickens has declared for the NFL Draft and LB Gilber Edmond is in the portal. Pickens was 3rd on the team in sacks with 2.5 while also chipping in 42 tackles, 3 passes defended, and a fumble recovery, and is a big loss up front. Edmond is also a loss on the edge, as he had 39 tackles and 2 sacks in 2022.

So, as we talk through this team’s strengths and weaknesses, please keep the above in mind — South Carolina’s national ranking in various metrics may not be as relevant when they’re missing, say, their top two DBs or their top two rushers on the year.

Overall, South Carolina finished the regular season at 25th in SP+, 19th in the CFP rankings, and 20th in the AP Poll at 8-4, just like the Irish. The Gamecocks took an interesting path to get there, starting 5-3 with losses to Arkansas and Missouri (and Georgia, but fair enough on that one) while largely beating up on bad teams like Georgia State, Charlotte, South Carolina State, and Texas A&M. Then, after getting trounced by Florida in Gainesville, the Gamecocks flipped a switch — especially offensively — and won their final two games against the Tennessee Volunteers and Clemson Tigers, with QB Spencer Rattler showing the oodles of potential that made him a 5-star prospect and the one-time starter in Lincoln Riley’s Oklahoma offense.

That Tennessee win was especially impressive by Rattler, who completed 30 of 37 passes for 438 yards and 6 touchdowns (!!!) without tossing a single interception against a Volunteers squad that was still considered a very possible CFP candidate. South Carolina’s 63-38 victory erased that possibility, and set the stage for an encore performance in Clemson that saw Rattler throw for 360 yards and 2 touchdowns (this time also throwing 2 picks) enroute to a 31-30 rivalry win to finish the year.

Rattler’s total season numbers are decent but not eye-popping (2,780 yards, 67% completion, 7.9 YPA, 16 TD, 11 INT), but those final two games of the season where he threw for 798 yards and 8 touchdowns against two good teams show how dangerous he can be, and also how much of a groove he’s in entering this Gator Bowl match-up. South Carolina is currently tied for 40th in the country in total passing offense (257.8 yards per game), while ranked even higher in yards per attempt (tied for 25th) and passer rating (31st).

Without both of his top tight ends on Friday, Rattler will undoubtedly lean on his wideouts, and there are a few really talented ones for him to target. Antwane Wells Jr. is the best of the bunch, having reeled in 63 passes for 898 yards and 6 touchdowns this season. Add in Jalen Brooks (33 catches, 504 yards, 1 TD), Josh Vann (18 cathes, 296 yards, 3 TD), and Ahmarean Brown (19 catches, 166 yards, 1 punt return TD), and Rattler will certainly have some playmakers to throw to and some guys to truly test the ND secondary. Replacing Bell and Stogner will probably be a combination of Nate Adkins and Traevon Kenion, who combined for 11 catches, 144 yards, and 1 TD this season.

NCAA Football: Tennessee at South Carolina Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

A key note here is that Rattler has been sacked 28 times this season, and the Gamecocks rank tied for 82nd in sacks allowed and tied for 116th in tackles for loss allowed, as the South Carolina offensive line has been nothing to write home about, if not downright bad. The issue there, of course, is that the Irish will be without their best pass rusher in Foskey, so we’ll see how much the rest of that group can take advantage of an opponent that should offer plenty of opportunity for sacks/havoc in the backfield.

As I mentioned, South Carolina will not have Lloyd or Bell, their two top rushers from a pretty ineffective rushing attack in 2022, as the Gamecocks are currently tied for 100th in the country in rushing offense (123.3 yards per game) and 87th in yards per carry (3.8). They clearly know they aren’t a great running team, considering they rank 107th in the nation in rushing attempts per game at 32.42.

When they do try to run the ball on the Irish, though, ND fans can expect to see the ball in the hands of running backs Juju McDowell (191 yards, 3.6 YPC, 3 TD) and Christian Beal-Smith (148 yards, 4.1 YPC, 5 TD). Neither has flashed too much to-date, so we will see how they handle an expanded workload. McDowell has shown some ability as a receiver as well (21 receptions, 192 yards, 1 TD), so that could factor into how much time they split and how each is used within the offense.

NCAA Football: South Carolina at Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

At a higher level, this South Carolina offense is solid and can obviously be dangerous, but many of their statistics don’t jump off the page. They’re 32nd in the nation in SP+, 41st in scoring (31.7 points per game), 73rd in total offense, 43rd in yards per play, and 95th in first downs. They’re pretty pedestrian at converting on 3rd down (66th in the country at 39.3%) and in the red zone (64th in the country at 84.3%), and they do a bad job managing the football, tied for 120th in the country in turnovers lost at 25 on the season (driven by being tied for 112th in fumbles lost).

However, despite not being great in the red zone, they are pretty darn good at scoring touchdowns when they get there (19th in the country in red zone TD %), and they can be a very explosive offense, tied for 21st in the nation in plays of 50+ yards and tied for 14th in plays of 60+ yards.

On the other side of the ball is a Gamecocks defense that’s rated 56th in the country in SP+ and ranks 78th in scoring (27.5 PPG allowed), 80th in total defense (391.9 YPG allowed), and tied for 70th in yards per play allowed (5.56). The one thing they have done well this season is defend the pass, as they are 28th in pass defense, tied for 27th in yards per pass attempt allowed, tied for 20th in passes defended, 24th in passer rating allowed, tied for 5th in completion percentage allowed (53.5%), and tied for 34th in interceptions. Unfortunately for Shane Beamer’s squad, though, Smith and Rush will both be sitting out, and both of those guys were key pieces in driving the above statistical season performance.

Still, South Carolina has some nice talent on the back end. Nick Emmanwori led the team in tackles this season with 78 (to go along with a PD and a FR), Marcellas Dial is tied for 18th in the country in passes defended per game (11 total on the season to go along with 41 tackles and 3 INT), and DQ Smith has been a nice playmaker as well, accumulating 49 tackles, 5 passes defended, an interception, a forced fumble, and a sack on the year. Add in that this will be Tyler Buchner’s first game action since Marshall, and maybe it’s still not a match-up the Irish will want to explore too often, even if the Gamecocks were already tied for 111th in the country in sacks and tied for 115th in tackles for loss before Pickens and Edmond opted for the draft/portal, meaning the pass rush won’t exactly be ferocious.

NCAA Football: South Carolina at Clemson Anderson Independent Mail-USA TODAY Sports

However, with those guys out, there are still a couple pass rushers for the Irish to worry about, led by DL Tonka Hemingway, who led the team in sacks with 4 while also picking up 29 tackles, a PD, and 2 fumble recoveries. LB Jordan Burch is another key name here with 3.5 sacks in 2022, and LBs Sherrod Greene (1.5 sacks) and Debo Williams (1.5 sacks) are also capable of getting to the QB from time to time.

Against the run, the Gamecocks were NOT great this season, which should bode well for an Irish offense that should be wanting to lean hard on the run without Michael Mayer, Drew Pyne, etc. South Carolina is 112th in rushing defense and tied for 112th in yards per carry allowed (4.85), and so it will be up to guys like Greene (65 tackles, 1 PD, 1 INT), Burch (56 tackles, 3 PD, 1 FR), Williams (42 tackles, 1 FF), and LB Brad Johnson (40 tackles, 1 INT) to do a better job shooting gaps, wrapping up, and not allowing the likes of Audric Estime and Logan Diggs to get into the second level.

NCAA Football: South Carolina at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

More good news for Irish fans: the Gamecocks are not top-notch in forcing turnovers, although they’re also not horrible at it. They’re tied for 35th in overall turnovers gained, but are tied for 74th in forced fumbles and tied for 44th in fumbles recovered. With Smith and Rush out, hopefully it will be a tad easier for ND to avoid turning the ball over, but it’s certainly something to keep an eye on in this game.

One final note on the South Carolina defense — they are generally very good at limiting chunk plays, tied for 34th in plays allowed of 20+ yards and tied for 37th in plays of 30+ yards allowed. However, they ARE tied for 86th in the country in plays of 60+ yards allowed, so if the Irish were to suddenly find guys like Braden Lenzy, Lorenzo Styles Jr., or Tobias Merriweather deep, now would be a great time to start.

Finally, let’s quickly talk about special teams, as Shane Beamer has clearly taken a page out of his dad’s book with how he runs his program. The Gamecocks are rated #1 in the country in special teams in SP+, and rightfully so. They’re 2nd in the country in punting average (46.83 yards per punt), tied for 3rd in blocked kicks (6), 5th in both kickoff and punt return averages (with 1 kickoff return TD and 2 punt return TDs on the season), tied for 1st in field goal % (PK Mitch Jeter is 10/10 on the season, including 2/2 on kicks of 50+ yards), tied for 29th in opponent field goal % (68.8%), 25th in opponent punting average (40.26 yards per punt), 17th in opponent kickoff returns, and 27th in opponent punt returns.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 23 South Carolina at Texas A&M Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Simply put, the Gamecocks do everything on special teams very well, and it will be really interesting to see if Brian Mason’s group has finally met an opponent who will outshine them, or if they can raise their game to South Carolina’s level and give us a special teams match-up for the ages.

Key names to note on special teams: Jeter (who has missed 2 extra points on the year despite being perfect on field goals, FYI), punter Kai Kroeger (3rd in the country in punt average), and Xavier Legette/Ahmarean Brown, who have each taken a kick/punt to the house this season and could do so again if the ND kick and punt coverage teams don’t execute.

One last, final note: South Carolina is 110th in the country in penalty yards per game (63) and tied for 92nd in penalties committed per game (6.8), so if the Irish can play disciplined and largely mistake-free, they should expect to receive a few gifts from the Gamecocks via penalties.

Okay, now that we’ve covered all that, let’s get down to it — What’s Important Now for the Irish as they head into this Gator Bowl match-up???

We’re basically at time for this meeting, so I won’t read through all these right now. But essentially, the Irish need to run the ball well, but also give Tyler Buchner some chances to throw and prove himself against a Gamecocks secondary missing some key guys. Defensively, the Irish need to focus on getting pressure and not giving up big plays, and then on special teams Brian Mason’s group needs to try to rise to the occasion against an elite special teams opponent.

Finally, considering this is an exhibition game and there are some key guys out, the staff also needs to try to get some reps for young guys — even if just in certain spots and not a lot of PT overall — in order to get them some experience and also just see what ND really has for next year and beyond.

Okay folks, that’s all we’ve got for this week. Any questions?

Perfect, well per usual, please let me know if you have any questions or concerns pop up, and otherwise I will send out the link for this deck right after this call for your reference throughout the week.

Thanks everyone for joining the call today during this holiday period when we would all ideally not be working and instead spending some time with family, and I hope you all have a great New Year’s and are ready for a fantastic off-season coming up!!!!!

*clicks “End Call” button*

*immediately closes laptop, grabs a peanut butter Hershey Kiss cookie and stuffs it into mouth, then flops onto the couch to watch whichever Harry Potter movie is currently playing on the USA network*