Gator Bowl: With Tyler Buchner back at QB — for now — Notre Dame looks to go out a winner

“The most important thing is winning,” coach Marcus Freeman said. “That’s going to give us the most momentum as we continue to look forward.”

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Marshall v Notre Dame

Notre Dame quarterback Tyler Buchner hasn’t played since getting hurt against Marshall in September.

Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Way back in the old days, before bowl-game opt-outs and the transfer portal conspired to rob college football of a big piece of its soul, players took the field with their teammates at this time of year because, well, doing so was just a given.

Jarrett Patterson can relate. The Notre Dame graduate-student offensive lineman has had enough trouble with injuries that others in his shoes might have chosen to skip the Gator Bowl on Friday against South Carolina. But this guy, who was too hurt to play when the Irish reached the College Football Playoff in 2020? This four-year starter, who could have gone to the NFL a year ago but returned to school and took on a difficult position switch from center to guard?

Not a chance.

‘‘The way I look at it,’’ he said, ‘‘I have one more opportunity to play with this group. . . . The injuries come and go, but the memories last forever.’’

But the Gator Bowl is no different than most bowls in that many notable players will be busy doing something else. The Irish (8-4) will be without their top pass catcher, Michael Mayer, and their top pass rusher, Isaiah Foskey, both of whom have opted out to prepare for the NFL Draft. Defensive starters Cam Hart and Jayson Ademilola are out with injuries, and there are several others who already jumped into the portal. The Gamecocks (8-4) have even more new holes in the two-deep than the Irish do.

Drew Pyne, a 10-game starter at quarterback, left Notre Dame for Arizona State, but that’s old news now that original starter Tyler Buchner — knocked out in Game 2 with a shoulder injury thought at the time to be a season-ender — is ready to take his first snaps since September. But the sophomore’s nice comeback story rings a bit hollow in light of reports that Wake Forest’s Sam Hartman, the ACC’s career leader in touchdown passes, is transferring to Notre Dame.

It’s going to be hard enough for Buchner to outshine Spencer Rattler, the star QB who led the Gamecocks to a 63-38 rout of Tennessee and a 31-30 victory at Clemson — their first Palmetto rivalry triumph since 2013 — in the last two weeks of the regular season. Is Buchner supposed to come back next season and compete with Hartman, which probably would be no competition at all?

Things have gotten more complicated in most every program, but Irish coach Marcus Freeman urged players during a team meeting Wednesday to try to stay in the present.

‘‘Our focus is right now,’’ he told them. ‘‘Our focus is finishing this season off right now in the right way. If you continue to focus on the future, think about the future, you’re going to lose the opportunity we have in front of us.’’

For each team, it’s a chance to finish with nine victories. But the Irish’s 8-4 doesn’t look as good as the Gamecocks’ 8-4. For one thing, it’s Notre Dame we’re talking about. But an early loss to Marshall and a mid-October loss to Stanford — both in South Bend — created a lost-season vibe, at least to many observers. An 8-5 finish would tie for the second-worst record at Notre Dame since the Charlie Weis era.

‘‘The most important thing is winning,’’ Freeman said. ‘‘That’s going to give us the most momentum as we continue to look forward.’’

Winning, yes. And — as Patterson sees it — enjoying the heck out of the moment.

‘‘That’s one last great memory [we] could have,’’ he said. ‘‘Especially for the other guys in the locker room who are going to move on in life, not even try to go to the NFL, playing their last football game, it’s going to be special for those guys, as well.

‘‘It’s not just for me; it’s for the other guys, too.’’

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