Notre Dame sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner hadn’t played football in just over 100 days and there were times in the 78th TaxSlayer Gator Bowl on Friday when the rust was still evident.
One of those moments was when South Carolina cornerback Fortune O’Donnell returned Buchner’s third interception of the game a Gator Bowl-record 100 yards for a touchdown, the second pick-six of the game for the Gamecocks and the third tie of the second half, 38-38 with 7:42 left.
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But when Buchner went to the sidelines, then returned to the huddle after the kickoff, he saw something in the eyes of his coaches and teammates — 100 percent support.
“Having that look in their eyes gave me more confidence,” Buchner said. “It came down to every person being supportive of me.”
He then guided the Irish on a textbook drive, 12 plays and 80 yards, nine of them runs but the last one the biggest pass of his life: a sweet lob to tight end Mitchell Evans, who was wide-open on the left side of the field after Buchner’s play-fake to the right.
Evans could have crawled into the end zone and the 16-yard TD, the fifth of the game with Buchner involved, was the deciding score in Notre Dame’s 45-38 victory over the Gamecocks in front of 67,383 at TIAA Bank Field.
Game breaks scoring records
It was the largest Gator Bowl crowd in 11 years since 68,325 watched Mississippi State beat Michigan in 2011 and the largest of the 34 bowl games played through Friday — topping the 63,912 that watched the Orange Bowl between Tennessee and Clemson.
And they were surely entertained — even though estimates were that 70 percent of the crowd, the enthusiastic, vocal South Carolina fans who flocked to the team’s first Florida bowl game in nine years, went home dejected.
No. 21 Notre Dame (9-4) and the 19th-ranked Gamecocks (8-5) combined for a Gator Bowl record of 83 points, topping the 76 scored in 2007 when West Virginia beat Georgia Tech 38-35.
There were touchdowns on offense, defense and special teams. The two teams totaled 921 yards of offense (558 for the Irish, their second-highest this season), eight players accounted for 11 touchdowns (also breaking the game record of 10 set in 2007), five players threw passes, 13 had runs from scrimmage and 15 caught passes.
“What an environment out there tonight,” said South Carolina coach Shane Beamer.
“The ending was right and that’s what we’ll remember,” added Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman, whose team lost to Oklahoma State 37-35 last year in the Fiesta Bowl, his first game as the Irish coach.
Notre Dame rallied from deficits of 21-7 and 24-10 (its second-largest deficit in a bowl game before coming back to win) and eventually tied it 24-24 when Logan Diggs caught a pass from Buchner (18 of 33 for 274 yards and three touchdowns, and 61 yards rushing and two scores to earn game MVP honors) on a wheel route and sped 75 yards to the end zone late in the second quarter, followed by Buchner’s second TD on the ground, from 11 yards out on the first possession of the second half for the Irish.
The TD pass to Diggs was Notre Dame’s longest play from scrimmage this season and the longest TD pass in the Gator Bowl since 2014 when Quincy Enuwa went 99 yards with a Tommy Armstrong pass in a 24-19 victory over Georgia.
Buchner played his third game of the season
They traded body blows until it was 38-38: Carolina quarterback Spencer Rattler, the Carolina game MVP (29 of 46, 246 yards, two TDs), threw a 42-yard TD pass to Xavier Legette, Buchner found Braden Lenzy from 44 yards out and Diggs scored on a 39-yard run that was set up when Lenzy rambled 20 yards on a fake punt, and Fortune then jumped on a Buchner pass and went the distance, matching teammate DQ Smith, who picked Buchner off in the first quarter and went to the house from 47 yards away.
In the end, it came down to Buchner, who injured his non-throwing (left) shoulder in the second game of the season and missed the next 10 games, and Evans, who had not caught a pass all season but was pressed into service after All-American Michael Mayer opted out of the game to prepare for the NFL draft.
“We started to put in a little play-action … sneak the tight end out the back side and in the open,” Buchner said. “It was a great call by [offensive coordinator Tommy] Rees. It’s kind of a shot or nothing.”
It proved to be everything.
The Gamecocks managed to reach the Notre Dame 34 inside a minute to play when Rattler, starting at his own 10-yard line with 1:30 left, completed two passes for 20 yards, then gained 18 yards.
Notre Dame linebacker Jaylen Sneed was hit with an unnecessary roughness penalty on that Rattler run that tacked in 15 more yards but Rattler was flagged for intentional grounding when he was sacked by Rylie Mills, two more passes went awry, running back Juju McDowell incurred an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and the Irish had their Gator Bowl trophy since their first appearance, a 20-9 victory over Penn State in 1976.
The Gamecocks are winless in five Gator Bowl appearances.
Teams explode early
The big plays started early and kept coming. Rattler threw a 17-yard TD pass to Legette to open the scoring on the Gamecocks’ first possession. Notre Dame countered with Buchner’s nifty 15-yard TD run.
South Carolina then struck with two unconventional scores within a span of 103 seconds.
On a fourth-and-eight play from the Irish 23, the Gamecocks lined up with punter Kspani Kroeger in a deep shotgun formation. He threw a TD pass to Hunter Rogers, who lined up on the right as the second receiver in a two-player stack. It was Kroeger’s second TD pass of the year and the sixth pass completion in six attempts on fake kicks in his college career.
Three players later, Buchner was picked off by Smith, whose touchdown gave South Carolina a 21-7 lead. Blake Grupke of Notre Dame and Mitch Jeter of the Gamecocks swapped field goals in the second quarter before the Irish launched their comeback.
The Gamecocks were operating short-handed, missing nine starters from the regular-season finale against Clemson due to injuries, the transfer portal and opt-outs. They included leading rusher MarShawn Lloyd and tight end Jaheim Bell of Lake City, the team’s No. 2 rusher and No. 3 receiver.
Nate Adkins, the team’s only experienced tight end, caught five passes for 78 yards but left the game with an upper body injury in the third quarter.
“There’s no excuse,” said Beamer, who is 15-11 with two bowl games in his first two seasons with the Gamecocks. “They’re good up front, hard to run the football on. We were able to pop some runs early but not well enough, not consistently enough … to come down here and play our a—- off … this program is just getting started.”
The Irish were without Mayer and top pass rusher Isaiah Foskey. But Evans caught three passes for 39 yards and Notre Dame had three sacks, two from Jordan Botelho, and eight quarterback hits.
“What a great feeling … the opportunity to finish a champion, there’s no greater feeling,” said Freeman. “I’m extremely proud of this team, the leaders, the seniors, and to send that group off the right way is very pleasing.”
The game was a much-needed boost for the Gspantor Bowl and the local economy after the previous two years, a combination of holding stadium capacity to 25 percent for Kentucky vs. N.C. Stspante in 2020 and Texas A&M’s opt-out in 2021, leading to Rutgers coming spans spann emergency replspancement to play Wake Forest a week before the game.
South Carolina fans invaded the First Coast early in the week and gave their team a clear edge in the stands.
Beamer said he was sorry he couldn’t have turned that into an edge on the field.
“So thankful for our fans, they way they traveled down here,” Beamer said. “The best fan base in the country.”