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How Notre Dame regained its identity in the chaos of a Gator Bowl fence

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JACKSONVILLE, Florida. —Marcus Freeman and Tyler Bucher had been fired onstage, working on the post-game obligations that come with being the head coach or quarterback. One of them received a trophy. The other earned MVP honors. Fifteen meters away, still down on the ground, our LadyThe offensive line came with punches for graduate assistant Chris Watt and hugs for O line coach Harry Hiestand. Afterwards, the whole group posed for a photo, commemorating the last night in which Notre Dame’s best position on the court was the one that contributed so much to the recent success of the program, which now covers head coaches, quarterbacks and coordinators.

The characters change. The formula no.

When Notre Dame’s offensive line can carry a game plan while eliminating an opponent’s willpower, almost anything is possible. Including a stunning 45-38 Gator Bowl win over South Carolina, which Notre Dame managed without two All-Americans, its former starting quarterback and three other starters on defense. The Irish were able to survive all those absences as their line landed back to back on the Gamecocks, four quarter toll Caroline from the south couldn’t pay.

“Put it on our backs”, right tackle Blake Fisher shouted. “We’ll take care of it every time.”

The game wasn’t officially over until spencer ratterThe fourth lift ended incompletely in the final minute, allowing Buchner to kneel the final seconds. How Notre Dame got there didn’t exactly go as planned, but the final moments were exactly what Freeman wanted.

After a successful fake field goal in South Carolina and Buchner’s first of two picks gave the Gamecocks a seemingly comfortable two-touchdown lead late in the first quarter, the Irish needed every outside court block and every pick-up of blitz to end this volatile season. . An offense that stumbled out of the gate traveled all over South Carolina in the second half, rushing for 149 yards in the fourth quarter alone.

“When you have the ability to run the ball and the other team knows you’re going to do it, that’s when you know things are happening,” 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 these running exercises indoors. That’s why you challenge those guys up front.

At halftime, Freeman challenged both lines to deliver. South Carolina quarterback Spencer Rattler had set the Notre Dame defense apart under little pressure. The Irish offensive line was tasked with continuing to press until the Gamecocks crumbled under the weight of it all. And that meant offensive coordinator Tommy Rees had to stay patient and aggressive, a difficult balance to strike in a game plan.

When Buchner knocked Braden Lenzy for a 44-yard offside touchdown late in the third quarter, the play worked because Notre Dame’s offensive front gained the line of scrimmage. When Buchner knocked Mitchell Evans for the game-winning touchdown with less than two minutes remaining, the call worked as the Irish run game was rolling. This is how a 6-foot-5, 255-pound tight end can get lost in open spaces.

“It went well,” Freeman said. Again, it’s a credit to how we handle the ball. You know, run the ball, run the ball, run the ball, then a short distance situation…it’s a tough game for this defense, especially when you’re able to run the ball. But it was a great execution from these guys.

It’s unclear how much of the Gator Bowl will take next season. The Irish are should add Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman out of the transfer portal next month. Notre Dame had opt-out (tight part Michael Mayer and edge grinder Isaiah Foskey) and injuries (the Irish Gator Bowl resulted in 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-looking confidence.

Whatever his role next year, Buchner can point to the Gator Bowl as the moment he showed the potential Notre Dame saw in its recruiting process. Buchner’s athleticism accounted for two rushing touchdowns. He picked up cornerback blitzes in the passing game. He tossed the platform and changed the angle of the arms. He also showed an ability to involve Lenzy, such as when he threw that shot deep for the 44-yard score with enough contact for the receiver to run under.

Buchner also threw in those two pick sixes that nearly killed all that good work. The first was a tilted ball that looked like bad luck. The second was a pass that Buchner should never have thrown twice before shooting blindly at a waiting player. O’Donnell Fortunewho took 100 yards the other way to level the score at 38 with 7:42 remaining.

Notre Dame responded with a 12-play, 80-yard drive that chewed up 6:01 of the clock before Evans’ touchdown. Buchner only attempted three passes on the winning possession. Transported by Logan Digg, East Audric and Chris Tyree essentially accounted for the rest. The game ended with a most familiar Notre Dame player, even if everything that happened before seemed foreign.

“Third and fourth quarters is our quarter,” Diggs said. “I go to the O line, and they look the same as me.”

Buchner finished 18th of 33 for 274 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions. His 12 carries for 61 yards and two scores is a workload that has boosted confidence in his recovery from shoulder surgery in September. The sneak Rees let Buchner run in the first half was a public green light for the quarterback’s left shoulder.

“He’s special, man,” Freeman said. And I told him on the sidelines and told him after the game that there were a lot of different examples that we use, Tyler Buchner, as an example of a guy who had a bumpy road. And the way he finished this season, his first year to have a chance to start and the ability to really shut out all the noise and focus on his job. And that’s in bowl practice, in a season, that’s in a game. That’s why I’m proud of him. »

If Freeman was the self-congratulatory type, he could have offered a few as well. Not too long ago, the freshman head coach was 0-3 for his career, losing at home to Marshall and losing his starting quarterback. The defeat in mid-October against Stanford was the kind of nadir that can sink a season. Instead, Notre Dame continued to work and grow. Maybe the lessons changed from week to week, but not their appetite for learning.

That’s why the Gator Bowl should be so satisfying for Freeman, both because of the way Notre Dame shut down South Carolina and the way the Irish kept coming when they could have blinked. eyes. The program earned its post-game moments: JD Bertrand and Braden Lenzy jumping into the crowd for family photos, position groups taking pictures with their assistant coaches, someone slipping an inflatable alligator in the middle of it all.

It was all a mess, the only normal part to come when Freeman walked past the good guard Josh Lugg for “Our Lady, Our Mother”. Despite all the Friday night craziness, some traditions don’t change. Nor is the formula to ensure Notre Dame sings like a winner.

Just let the offensive line handle it.

(Photo: James Gilbert/Getty Images)

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