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Friday, March 1, 2024
The Observer

How it happened: Five key moments of Notre Dame’s 45-38 Gator Bowl victory

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Notre Dame battled South Carolina in a back-and-forth Gator Bowl that saw the Irish erase an early 14-point deficit to secure a victory and finish the season 9-4. Here are the five key moments from the Irish’s Gator Bowl win.

Gamecocks take control of game with trick play and pick-six

After both teams scored early in the contest, South Carolina turned up the heat in the first quarter. 

After Notre Dame tied the game at 7-7, the Gamecocks wasted no time responding to the Irish on the ensuing drive after a facemask penalty on senior linebacker Marist Liufau set up the Gamecocks with a first down at their own 40-yard line. The Gamecocks turned to some trickery on the following play. Wide receiver Dakereon Joyner threw to Nate Adkins over the middle for an 18-yard gain. A few plays later, the Gamecocks were set up with a first down at the Irish 25-yard line. 

It looked like the Gamecocks would get into the endzone easily again, but the Irish defense stiffened up. On first down, senior linebacker Jack Kiser stuffed running back Rashod Amos for a loss of two. After a short pass on second down, junior Xavier Watts broke up a pass from Rattler to force the Gamecocks to bring their field goal unit on. The Gamecocks then caught the Irish off guard with a direct snap to punter/holder Kai Kroeger who found long-snapper Hunter Rogers over the middle for a touchdown.

The Irish needed an answer on the ensuing drive, and the drive started off well for the Irish with graduate student wide receiver Braden Lenzy gaining a first down on a sweep play. After two short runs set up a critical third down, disaster struck for the Irish. Buchner’s pass was deflected at the line of scrimmage by Alex Huntley, and it fell into the hands of DQ Smith. Smith then took the ball the other way for a touchdown to give the Gamecocks a commanding 21-7 lead.

Irish claw their way back, tying the game early in third quarter

Following the pick-six, the Irish were in desperate need of a score. A short pass to Thomas and a first down run by Tyree set the Irish up near midfield. It looked like the drive was going to stall a few plays later, but Buchner found Thomas for a first down on a crossing route while taking a major hit in the pocket after the throw. Buchner’s 21-yard run then set the Irish up first-and-goal, but the drive ultimately stalled, forcing the Irish to kick a field goal and cut the lead to 21-10.

The Gamecocks answered the Irish field goal with a field goal of their own to take a 24-10 lead with just over five minutes to play in the second quarter. On the following Irish drive, though, it only took the Irish one play to respond. Buchner found Diggs motioning out of the backfield, and it was a foot race from there. Diggs sprinted down the sidelines, outrunning the pursuing defense to complete a 75-yard touchdown that brought the Irish to within seven points.

After both teams failed to score at the end of the first half and on their first possessions of the second half, the Irish took advantage of their second opportunity. Sophomore running back Audric Estime got the drive going with a 19-yard run that put the ball in Gamecocks’ territory. On the following play, Buchner found Thomas near the sidelines for a 25-yard completion, setting the Irish up at the Gamecocks’ 23-yard line. Another Estime run set the Irish up at the 11-yard line before Buchner ran the ball in for his second touchdown of the game. The five-play, 68-yard drive tied the game at 24-24 with 10:28 to play in the third quarter.

Irish claim first lead

The Gamecocks answered the Irish on their ensuing drive to retake the lead. On a crucial third and one from their own 42-yard line, Rattler connected with Adkins on a short shovel pass that went for 17 yards, setting the Gamecocks up in Irish territory. Two plays later, Rattler threw a deep ball to Xavier Legette, who made a sensational diving catch in the endzone to give the Gamecocks a 31-24 lead.

Looking to quickly answer the Gamecocks’ touchdown, the Irish faltered with Buchner throwing an interception to Nick Barrett. The Irish defense kept Notre Dame within a score, though, forcing the Gamecocks to a three-and-out. Although the Irish were forced to punt on the ensuing drive, the defense stepped up again, forcing the Gamecocks into another three-and-out. A poor punt set the Irish up at the Gamecocks’ 44-yard line, and on the first play of the drive, Buchner found Lenzy deep over the middle for a touchdown to tie the game with 31 seconds to play in the third quarter.

After stopping the Gamecocks again, the Irish got the ball back at their own 27-yard line. It looked like the Irish drive had stalled again, but the Irish turned to some trickery on a fourth-and-four from their own 33-yard line. With the Irish in punt formation, the ball was snapped to sophomore tight end Davis Sherwood, who dished the ball to Lenzy on a sweep. Lenzy broke free, converting the fourth down and gaining 20 yards on the play. Three plays later, a 39-yard touchdown run from Diggs gave the Irish their first lead of the game with 12:41 left to play.

Buchner pick-six ties the score 

With a 38-31 lead midway through the fourth quarter, the Irish looked like they were close to putting the Gamecocks away. A Buchner 17-yard run at the beginning of the drive set the Irish up in Gamecocks’ territory. A few plays later, Estime exploded through the gap for a gain of 26 yards to set the Irish up at the Carolina seven-yard line. On the ensuing play, Buchner looked for Evans over the middle, but his pass was intercepted by O’Donnell Fortune. Fortune eluded multiple Irish players on the goal line, and he ran down the sidelines for a 100-yard interception return. That interception was good for the longest in Gator Bowl history, and it tied the game at 38 apiece with just under eight minutes to play. 

Buchner orchestrates game-winning drive

Logan Diggs started the drive off for the Irish with a 17-yard run to set Notre Dame up at its own 37-yard line. A few plays later, a Buchner quarterback sneak for four yards on third down gave the Irish a first down at midfield. After a short completion to Evans, a 12-yard run by Estime gave the Irish a first down at the Gamecocks’ 33-yard line. After short runs by Tyree, the Irish faced a third-and-five with 2:49 to play. Buchner faced heavy pressure on the play, but he found Tyree out of the backfield for nine yards to give the Irish a first down at the Gamecocks’ 19-yard line. Estime then carried the ball on the next two plays for short gains to set up a third-and-seven for the Irish with just 1:45 to play. Buchner faked the handoff to Estime and found a wide open Evans for a 16-yard touchdown to put the Irish up 45-38. The Gamecocks looked to answer late, and they put together a late drive, getting all the way to the Irish 34-yard line. A couple of penalties eventually derailed the drive, leading to the  Gamecocks turning the ball over on downs. The Irish then needed one kneel down to secure a 45-38 victory.