Notre Dame fights back — again and again — to beat South Carolina 45-38 in Gator Bowl

If that’s not something to build on after a 9-4 season that could’ve been better — or worse — it’s hard to think of what would be.

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TaxSlayer Gator Bowl - Notre Dame v South Carolina

Notre Dame quarterback Tyler Buchner runs for a first-quarter touchdown in the Gator Bowl against South Carolina.

Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — No. 21 Notre Dame slugged back at No. 19 South Carolina on Saturday at the Gator Bowl.

Again. And again.

A few times, the Irish missed and punched themselves in the face instead.

But it all added up to a 45-38 victory that never would have happened if the Irish hadn’t packed an abundant supply of resilience for this road trip. They needed every last bit of it, too.

The Irish trailed 21-7 after the highest-scoring first quarter in Gator Bowl history. They were victimized by a flurry of gadget plays including a touchdown pass thrown by South Carolina’s punter. Quarterback Tyler Buchner, playing for the first time since the second game of the season, threw not one but two pick-sixes, the second of which was run back 100 yards to tie the game 38-38 in the fourth quarter.

But one last drive — 12 plays, 80 meaningful yards — put the Irish on top. In a game of seemingly endless battling back, this was the best of all possible conclusions.

And if that’s not something to build on after a 9-4 season that could’ve been better — or worse — it’s hard to think of what would be.

“It helps with momentum, obviously,” coach Marcus Freeman said after his first full season, “but I think it’s the belief in what we’re doing. We’ve got a special group of leaders. It’s a special place.”

It didn’t take long for things to look bad for Notre Dame and even worse for Freeman, whose first bowl go-round was a 37-35 loss to Oklahoma State in which the Irish blew a 21-point lead. This time, star QB Spencer Rattler led his red-hot SEC squad — which destroyed Tennessee and beat Clemson in its last two regular-season games — right down the field for a 7-0 lead. It got to 14-7 when punter/holder Kai Kroeger took a shotgun snap from the Irish 23 and found backup long snapper Hunter Rodgers, who’d lined up out wide, uncovered down the seam for the only catch of his career.

Kroeger has famously completed previous passes this season. South Carolina is famous for running trick plays. Why weren’t the Irish ready for this? The very same drive included two throws by a running back out of the wildcat and one reverse flea-flicker completed by Rattler. Freeman’s team looked unprepared.

And then, when Buchner threw pick-six No. 1, the Irish already looked halfway buried. An announced crowd of 67,383 at TIAA Bank Stadium — heavily in favor of the Gamecocks (8-5) — sure celebrated like it was all but over.

It sure wasn’t. Logan Diggs caught a deep strike from Buchner for a 75-yard score that made it 24-17 at the half. The Irish tied it on a 68-yard drive early in the third quarter, Buchner scampering in from 11 yards out.

But the inventive Gamecocks struck back, impressive considering their offensive coordinator, Marcus Satterfield, is already at Nebraska. Rattler faked a jet sweep and underhanded a pass to tight end Nate Adkins for a big gain, then found wideout Xavier Legette for a 42-yard bit of go-ahead-touchdown magic. When Buchner followed that with an interception, it began to look bleak again.

But another bomb from Buchner found Braden Lenzy to tie it. One drive later — a picture of poetic beauty — the Irish gained 20 yards on a fake punt, Lenzy taking a pass from upback Davis Sherwood on a sweep and scampering around the defense. Three players later, Logan Diggs ran 39 yards to the end zone and the Irish had their first lead.

Inexplicably, though, with the Irish knocking at the door for a two-score lead, having run the ball easily to get down to the 7, a first-down pass was called. South Carolina’s O’Donnell Fortune gleefully took it 100 yards in what was, to Irish eyes, the absolute wrong direction.

“We shouldn’t have thrown it,” Freeman said. “We shouldn’t have called it.”

They certainly couldn’t afford to dwell on it in the moment. Instead, the Irish got the ball back and ran Diggs, ran Audric Estime, ran Chris Tyree, ran Buchner. Chewing up 80 yards in over six precious minutes, they finished it with some slick misdirection and an easy touchdown completion from Buchner to tight end Mitchell Evans.

What happens with Buchner — who threw three INTs but accounted for five TDs — from here? Was his comeback from a shoulder injury a one-start-and-done thing, with Wake Forest transfer Sam Hartman reportedly coming in?

“I’m just proud of him,” Freeman said.

And what happens with the Irish in 2023? Are the embarrassing losses to Marshall and Stanford behind Freeman’s program? Was this a needed turning point?

“I’m just proud of this team,” he said.

It took one pretty good-size step in the right direction.

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