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Tuesday, March 5, 2024
The Observer

‘What a great feeling’: Irish take home first bowl win of the Freeman era, 45-38

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Last year, the Irish came out of the gate with a 21-point lead in the Fiesta Bowl but lost in the second half to Oklahoma State, 37-35. After making it back to a bowl game this year, the Irish were behind South Carolina at the half, 24-17, but turned the game around to win 45-38. This matchup became the highest-scoring game in Gator Bowl history.

“It's never how you foresee it on the front end. In all the days you can sit here before this game and daydream about how you think this game will go, it wasn't like that. But the ending was, and that's what we'll remember,” head coach Marcus Freeman said. “To send [the seniors] off the right way, no matter how we could achieve it, that's what matters. So I'm happy we got it done.” 

The Gamecocks came out swinging and scored quickly. After several quick flips, the Irish defense looked to be making their first stop, but gave up a pass underneath to tight end Nate Adkins for 24 yards. Quarterback Spencer Rattler then hit Xavier Legette in the flat, who ran in for a score from the Irish 14.

The Irish offense took the field to roaring South Carolina fans and could not answer, going three-and-out and punting to the Carolina 32.

The Irish quickly got another chance though, this time from their own 50. Rattler found Ahmarean Brown on Carolina's 43, but — looking to evade Irish graduate cornerback Tariq Bracy — Brown dropped the ball. Junior safety Ramon Henderson pumped the breaks to spin around and dive on it. Diggs then took the ball seven yards before a completed pass to Tyree and a sneak from quarterback Tyler Buchner grabbed the first Irish first down.

Facing third and 15 after an illegal motion, Buchner found sophomore tight end Mitchell Evans over the middle for 18 yards and a first down. This was Evans' first reception of the season after taking a secondary role to All-American Michael Mayer all year. After that, sophomore receiver Jayden Thomas was left wide open on the right side of the field to grab another first down for the Irish. Buchner fired a second-down pass attempt to Tobias Merriweather just out of the freshman's reach, so on the next snap, the quarterback took it in himself. The Irish went 50 yards in 10 plays and three minutes and 37 seconds. 

Adkins caught another long pass up the middle for a first down at the Irish 42, this time from wide receiver Dakereon Joyner. Rattler found Adkins immediately after that for nine yards. Joyner received another wildcat snap and gained eight yards to the Irish 25. On third and eight, Rattler tried to find Legette in the end zone, but Xavier Watts broke up the pass.

However, the Gamecocks fooled the Irish on fourth down. Holder Kai Kroeger executed what head coach Shane Beamer called a fake field goal, despite Gamecocks kicker Mitch Jeter not even being on the field. Kroeger took the snap from the Irish 23, looked off a wide receiver and passed to long-snapper Hunter Rogers in the end zone. 

On Notre Dame’s third drive, they again didn’t get very far. After a Braden Lenzy first down, Buchner attempted a pass, but it was tipped at the line. South Carolina's DQ Smith snatched it out of the air and took it to the house, leaving 44 seconds in the quarter. It was Buchner's third career pick-six and left the Irish trailing, 21-7.

Buchner would finish the game 18-33 with three passing touchdowns and two rushing scores. He ultimately threw for 274 yards but also tacked on three interceptions.

After the Irish waited the quarter out, Diggs picked up six yards to start the second. Buchner found Thomas for a first down, bringing the Irish to the Carolina 46. Tyree then brought the Irish to their own 40 for another first. Buchner found Thomas again for a first down at the Carolina 30. Buchner then took off around the outside for a 21-yard run to bring the Irish to the nine-yard line. He missed another pass though, this time for receiver Deion Colzie and on third and goal, the sophomore quarterback took a sack along the Carolina sideline. To put up more points, graduate student Blake Grupe drilled the first field goal of the game with 8:36 left in the half to make the score 21-10. 

On the next Carolina drive, several stops from Bertrand and junior defensive end Riley Mills brought the Carolina offense to two third downs, but they converted on both. Mills and Bertrand would make themselves known throughout the game. Bertrand accounted for eight tackles, half a tackle for loss and one QB hurry. Mills racked up only four tackles but broke behind the line several times for a sack and one and a half tackles for loss. On the second down of that Carolina drive, Rattler found Joyner for 26 yards. Two incomplete passes into the end zone from Rattler forced the Gamecocks to kick. Jeter sent the ball through the uprights for three points and a 24-10 advantage. 

On the first play of the Irish drive from their own 20, Logan Diggs caught a short pass from Buchner and took off. Diggs got around to the outside and, with insurance from a late block from Styles, found the end zone. After the kick, the Irish held 17. 

On the next drive, the Irish forced the first Gamecock punt of the day. But they were also forced to punt from within their own five. 

Although the punt from Jon Sot was returned to about the Irish 40, a blindside block committed by Joyner and an ensuing unsportsmanlike conduct foul on South Carolina head coach Shane Beamer walked the Gamecocks back to their own 20 to start their final drive of the half.

While it looked for a while like the Gamecocks would march right down one more time to the Irish end zone, freshman cornerback Benjamin Morrison intercepted a deep shot from Rattler for his sixth pick of the season. The Irish would kneel for the first time Friday night to end the half. 

To open the second half, the Irish and the Gamecocks exchanged three and outs. With 12:49 left in the third, Matt Salerno fair caught the Carolina punt at the Irish 32. Audric Estime was stuffed on the first play of the drive, but on the second he broke out to the Carolina 48 for 20 yards. From there, the Irish took three plays to reach the end zone. Buchner found Thomas for 25 yards and a first down at the 23. Estime ran once more after that to bring the Irish to the Gamecocks 11. To finish the drive off, Buchner took it to the house himself. Notre Dame tied it up with the first score of the half, 24-24. 

The Irish couldn’t tackle Legette on the kickoff return, so the Gamecocks started their responding drive from their own 33. It took a third-down pass finding Adkins again for the Gamecocks to convert. The tight end caught this pass for 17 yards. On second and 11 from the Irish 42, Rattler hit Legette in the end zone for a score. Carolina led the Irish 31-24 with 8:31 left in the quarter. 

From their own 20, the Irish sent Logan Diggs in twice, bringing up third and four. From the line of scrimmage, Tyler Buchner tried to flip it to Thomas, but the pass ended up behind the receiver and bounced between Gamecocks beforeNick Barrett rolled to catch it. With 6:37 left in the third, the Irish defense didn’t let the Gamecocks convert. From their own 12, the Irish took over again, but to no benefit. They got close to midfield before punting for a touchback. 

Despite the exchange, the Irish defense held tight. Bertrand rocketed into Rattler’s face on third and ten to force an incomplete pass and then a punt from the Gamecocks. After a delay of game penalty, the Gamecocks only punted to their own 44. Buchner took the pass in the shotgun and found Lenzy coming across on a deep crossing route. With his speed, Lenzy turned the corner inside the pylon for another one-play drive from the Irish. 

Lenzy’s score tied up the game, 31-31. The Irish defense again made a third and ten stop. Botelho logged his second sack of the day to force the Gamecock punt, which Salerno caught at the Carolina 26.

Diggs rushed twice for a total of six yards. On third and four, Buchner tried to find Colzie down the sideline, but Gamecocks defender Marcellus Style broke it up. The Irish took the fourth and four opportunity to fake a punt of their own. Sophomore tight end Davis Sherwood dumped it to Lenzy, who then looped around the right side for an Irish first down at the Gamecock 47.  On third and two, Diggs broke through the middle and took it 39 yards to the house. The Irish took the lead for the first time then with 12:41 left in the game. 

Another touchback started Carolina at its own 25. The Gamecocks punted for a fourth time and gave the Irish the ball back with 11:09 to go. 

The Irish marched downfield in response. Eventually, Estime brought the Irish inside the Gamecocks’ seven-yard line with a 26-yard rush, but the Irish would fail to score. Instead, Buchner would try to force a pass to Mitchell Evans, but Carolina defender O’Donnell Fortune intercepted it for a 100-yard touchdown run. This tied the game up at 38 apiece, but the Irish weren’t done just yet.

"We were looking for a specific look, and we thought we had it," Freeman said regarding the pick-six. "Didn't have the exact look we were looking for, and the guy made a great play ... Ultimately should not have thrown it, should not have called it."

Tyree got tripped at the 20-yard line on the kick return, so the Irish started their drive from there. After marching fairly quickly downfield, the Irish found themselves with another third and five. Buchner hit Tyree for a first down at the Carolina 19. On third and seven, Buchner found a wide-open Mitchell Evans, who walked into the end zone for the second Notre Dame lead of the game. The Irish drive left a minute and 38 seconds in the game. 

“This is what real life is about. The ability to respond to some of those situations that happened to you," Freeman said. "But the greatest thing about it was to be able to, again, use that situation as another example in the future, and the ability for that offense to have that happen, look at them on the sidelines and say, 'In about ... two minutes, you're going to go right back out there,' and for them to march down the field and score — that's what it’s all about.”

The Irish kicked off for the last time, which Brown returned to midfield, but another blocking penalty brought the Gamecocks back to their own 13. Rattler scrambled for first down and more, and with a personal foul on freshman linebacker Jaylen Sneed, the Gamecocks were on the Irish 36. Junior cornerback Clarence Lewis broke up Rattler’s first down pass. Then, Mills pressured Rattler again to force intentional grounding. The loss of down penalty forced South Carolina into a third and 21. Rattler threw out of bounds under pressure. The Gamecocks then backed up 15 more yards for unsportsmanlike conduct: fourth and 36.  

Rattler fired up a long shot for Wells Jr. who jumped up, covered by Bracy and freshman Jaden Mickey. Bracy attempted to make the catch, but it bounced off his hands and Mickey swatted it out of the air, killing the Gamecocks’ drive. 

In victory formation, Buchner knelt once to end the game, marking a win for the Irish. It's their first bowl win over a ranked opponent since 2017.

“What a great feeling,” Freeman said. “As I told these guys in the locker room, the opportunity to finish as a champion, there’s no greater feeling. I’m so proud of the way they continued to battle today, which is a representation of what they’ve done all season long. I know I said this before but we were on that bumpy road. But they continued to trust their coaches, to trust their leaders, and this is a great way to finish off this 2022 season … I’m extremely proud of this team, the leaders, the seniors. To send that group off the right way, it’s very pleasing.”