JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Marcus Freeman and Tyler Buchner had been pulled on stage, working through the postgame obligations that come with being the head coach or the quarterback. One got a trophy. The other got MVP honors. Fifteen yards away, still down on the field, Notre Dame’s offensive line came together with fist bumps for graduate assistant Chris Watt and hugs for O-line coach Harry Hiestand. Then the entire group posed for a photo, commemorating the last night on which Notre Dame’s best position on the field was the one that has driven so much of the program’s recent success, a run now spanning head coaches, quarterbacks and coordinators.
The characters change. The formula does not.
When Notre Dame’s offensive line can carry a game plan while taking away an opponent’s will, almost anything is possible. That includes a mind-bending 45-38 win in the Gator Bowl against South Carolina, which Notre Dame pulled off without two All-Americans, its former starting quarterback and three other starters on defense. The Irish could survive all those absences because their line landed body blow after body blow on the Gamecocks, four quarters of tolls South Carolina could not pay.
“Put that s— on our backs,” right tackle Blake Fisher shouted. “We’re gonna take care of it every time.”
The game wasn’t officially over until Spencer Rattler’s fourth down heave fell incomplete in the final minute, allowing Buchner to kneel out in the last few seconds. How Notre Dame got there didn’t exactly go to plan, but the closing moments were exactly what Freeman wanted.
After a successful South Carolina fake field goal and the first of Buchner’s two pick sixes gave the Gamecocks a seemingly comfortable two-touchdown lead by the end of the first quarter, the Irish needed every outside zone block and every blitz pickup to finish this volatile season. in style. An offense that stumbled out of the gate walked all over South Carolina in the second half, racking up 149 yards rushing in the fourth quarter alone.
“When you have the ability to run the ball and the other team knows you’re going to run it, that’s when you know things are rolling,” Freeman said. “And they knew we were going to run the ball. Except the last snap, when they thought we were going to run the ball and we didn’t. But that’s why we do those inside run drills. That’s why you challenge those guys up front.”
At halftime, Freeman challenged both lines to deliver. South Carolina quarterback Spencer Rattler had picked apart Notre Dame’s defense under little pressure. The Irish offensive line was tasked with continuing to apply pressure until the Gamecocks collapsed under the weight of it all. And that meant offensive coordinator Tommy Rees needed to stay patient and aggressive, a difficult balance to strike within one game plan.
When Buchner hit Braden Lenzy for a 44-yard touchdown off play-action late in the third quarter, the play worked because Notre Dame’s offensive front was winning the line of scrimmage. When Buchner hit Mitchell Evans for the game-winning touchdown with less than two minutes to play, the call worked because the Irish run game was rolling. That’s how a 6-foot-5, 255-pound tight end can get lost in open spaces.
“It went beautifully,” Freeman said. “Again, it’s a credit to how we were running the ball. You know, run the ball, run the ball, run the ball, and then a short-yardage situation… it’s a tough play for that defense, especially when you’re able to run the ball. But it was great execution by these guys.”
It is not clear how much of the Gator Bowl will carry into next season. The Irish are expected to add Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman out of the transfer portal next month. Notre Dame had opt-outs (tight end Michael Mayer and edge rusher Isaiah Foskey) and injuries (the Irish ended the Gator Bowl down three starters in the secondary) to create adversity that may not be there next September. Yet the Irish still left TIAA Bank Field with a different kind of forward-facing confidence.
Regardless of his role next year, Buchner can point to the Gator Bowl as the moment he flashed the potential Notre Dame saw in his recruiting process. Buchner’s athleticism accounted for two rushing touchdowns. He picked up cornerback blitzes in the pass game. He threw off the platform and changed arm angles. He flashed an ability to get Lenzy involved, too, like when he lofted that deep shot for the 44-yard score with enough touch that the receiver could run underneath it.
Buchner also threw those two pick sixes that almost did all that good work. The first was a tipped ball that felt like bad luck. The second was a never-should-have-thrown-it pass that Buchner double-clutched before firing blindly to a waiting O’Donnell Fortune, who took it 100 yards the other way to tie the score at 38 with 7:42 to play. .
Notre Dame responded with a 12-play, 80-yard drive that chewed 6:01 of the clock before Evans’ touchdown. Buchner attempted just three passes on the game-winning possession. Carries by Logan Diggs, Audric Estime and Chris Tyree basically accounted for the rest. The game ended with a very familiar Notre Dame drive, even if everything that came before felt foreign.
“Third and fourth quarter, that’s our quarter,” Diggs said. “I go over to the O-line, and they have the same look in their eyes that I have.”
Buchner finished 18 of 33 for 274 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions. His 12 rushes for 61 yards and two scores represent a workload that backed up faith in his recovery from September shoulder surgery. The sneak Rees let Buchner run in the first half was a public all-clear for the quarterback’s left shoulder.
“He’s special, man,” Freeman said. “And I told him on the sideline and told him after the game that there are many different examples we use him, Tyler Buchner, as an example of a guy who had a bumpy road. And the way he finished off this season, his first year in having a chance to start and the ability to just really tune out all the noise and focus on his job. And that’s within bowl practice, within a season, that’s within a game. That’s why I’m proud of him.”
If Freeman was one for self-congratulations, he could have offered some of those, too. It wasn’t that long ago that the first-year head coach was 0-3 for his career, losing at home to Marshall and losing his starting quarterback. The mid-October loss to Stanford was the kind of rare that can sink a season. Instead, Notre Dame kept working and kept growing. Maybe the lessons changed week by week, but the appetite for learning them did not.
That’s why the Gator Bowl should be so satisfying for Freeman, both because of how Notre Dame shut out South Carolina and how the Irish kept coming when they could have blinked. The program earned its postgame moments: JD Bertrand and Braden Lenzy jumping into the crowd for family photos, position groups getting shots with their assistant coaches, somebody sneaking an inflatable alligator into the middle of it all.
It was all a beautiful mess, the only normal part coming when Freeman got next to right guard Josh Lugg for “Notre Dame, Our Mother.” For all the madness of Friday night, some traditions don’t change. Nor does the formula for making sure Notre Dame sings as a winner.
Just let the offensive line take care of it.
(Photo: James Gilbert/Getty Images)