How many times do you win a game where you throw not one, but two pick sixes and give up a fake-field-goal touchdown? My guess is less than 1% of the time, in which case we all witnessed a deeply improbable event as the Notre Dame Fighting Irish toppled the South Carolina Gamecocks in the Gator Bowl, 45-38. It was a game that in many ways summed up the entire season, as powerful potential clashed with disastrous mistakes, but the Irish never quit and were ultimately on top when all was said and done. Did it have to be this way? Of course not, but in the immortal words of the patron saint of the state of Florida - hey, I heard you like the wild ones.
Let’s talk about three overarching threads from this absolutely insane game, which we’ll now have to carry with us until August of 2023.
The Madness of Tommy Rees
If a person ever asks you to give an overall account of the Tommy Rees experience at Notre Dame - both as a player and an offensive coordinator - you can point them to this game. There were well-designed plays in the passing game that showed an impressive command of in-game schematics, finding winnable matchups and holes in the field and exploiting them for big gains and scores. There were moments of pure bliss as the Irish asserted their physical dominance on the ground in the second half, with Audric Estime bowling through Gamecock defenders and the Irish converting a ridiculous three-yard quarterback sneak for a first down.
There were also some truly bizarre galaxy-brain play calls that held the Irish back. The most notable, of course, was the inexplicable decision to pass the ball on first and goal with the lead in the fourth quarter, on a drive where the Irish had been physically bullying a fading Gamecocks defense. Yes, it was Tyler Buchner who actually threw the pick-six, but it was Tommy who decided to put the ball in the air when doing so was neither necessary nor wise. It is these moments - where the logic appears to be “it’s really stupid, they’ll never be expecting it” - that have made all of us question the faith Notre Dame has put in Rees at one point or another this season. He likely won’t be going anywhere this offseason, so one hopes Marcus Freeman will find ways to temper those moments moving forward.
Impressive Defensive Adjustments
One worrying trend that could be observed all the way back to Marcus Freeman’s debut a year ago was a lack of in-game adjustments by the Irish coaching staff. A year ago, Notre Dame’s defensive coaching staff seemed completely powerless to respond to a rejuvenated Oklahoma State attack in the second half. Yesterday, however, the Irish endured an early onslaught by an energized and highly creative Gamecocks offense before putting the clamps down in the second quarter, only allowing one offensive touchdown for the remainder of the game.
It feels weird to be complimenting the performance of the defense in a game where the other team scored 38 points - though less so when you account for the 21 points surrendered by the Irish offense and special teams - but the adjustments made after the first few South Carolina drives produced some truly impressive and telling statistical outcomes. Consistent penetration by the Irish defensive line - playing without two starters in Isaiah Foskey and Jayson Ademilola - produced nine TFLs and held the Gamecocks to 65 yards rushing on 22 carries. A red-hot start by Spencer Rattler was cooled by constant pressure from Notre Dame’s pass rush, improved open-field tackling and an active secondary that forced one low-percentage throw after another and held South Carolina to an average of 5.3 yards per passing attempt. Credit Al Golden and Marcus Freeman here with finally making the right in-game adjustments to shut down an opponent after a fast start.
Bring on the Quarterback Competition
In a game that provided a study in extremes, perhaps no performance was more extreme than that of Tyler Buchner: on the one hand, 274 yards passing and three touchdowns on an impressive range of throws, paired with 61 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. On the other? Three interceptions, two of which gifted touchdowns to the other team. Throughout Buchner showed remarkable courage and grit, perhaps best summed up his own postgame...analysis:
It was the kind of performance that wins hearts even as it taxes minds, but one thing it certainly did not do was lock up the quarterback job for Buchner in 2023. This game took place in the shadow of rumors that Sam Hartman would be transferring to Notre Dame for the 2023 season and with little doubt that he would take the starting job. And now on December 31, it’s still the case that if Hartman does come to South Bend, he would and should be the heavy favorite to win the job.
That said, Buchner chose - unlike his former teammate Drew Pyne - to remain at Notre Dame knowing they would be pursuing players of Hartman’s caliber in the transfer portal. Whether it is Hartman or another player coming in the spring, Buchner will have to fight hard for his job and show a lot of improvement to maintain it, and evidently believes in his ability to do so. We saw flashes on Friday night of a Buchner who could win that competition, and the Irish would be wise to allow him the opportunity even if he is ultimately in a secondary role in 2023.